Memoirs & Diaries - The Abdication of King Constantine I of Greece

Photograph of King Constantine During the last days of November 1916, there was extreme confusion in Athens.

he Military League was reconstituted.  The officers stirred up the soldiers in their barracks, the reservists were armed, the disorderly elements were enrolled by the agents of General Dousmanis.

Fights broke out in the streets; many Venizelists were roughly handled.  On the 26th a detachment of 200 French marines came to reinforce the little contingent encamped at the Zappeion.  In the capital an artificial excitement increased hour by hour.  In the provinces, where none existed, the government counterfeited it.

It pictured an uprising of the peasants in Thessaly, a massacre of the soldiers at Ecaterini.  Now, nowhere had the Thessalian peasants stirred, and the very prefect of Larissa himself acknowledged that not a word had been heard about rebellion in his province.  As for the evzones (light-armed troops in native costume), not one had been harmed.

That did not, however, hinder the Gounarists from ordering a solemn requiem - forbidden at the last minute - to "celebrate the entrance into immortality of the heroes who had fallen gloriously in a battle against the traitors."

By dint of these tragi-comedies an agitation was produced which threatened at any instant to be transformed into riots and massacres.  During the night of the 27th very many houses in which Venizelists lived were marked with red circles.  The leaders of the reservists proclaimed that they would hinder by force the surrender of weapons even if the government permitted it.  Trenches were dug in the immediate neighbourhood of Athens, and emplacements for machine guns and artillery were prepared.

In spite of all these unfavourable signs, the confidence of Admiral Dartige and of General Bousquier, the French military attaché, in an amicable solution appeared unshaken.

On the 29th the admiral had a somewhat long interview with the king.  On the 30th the general too was given an audience by Constantine I.  In the course of these conversations both were convinced that the king desired only that they should force his hand and that a simple outward manifestation of force would make it possible to gain all that they had demanded.

The king, it was said, had formally declared that the Greek troops would offer no resistance; he had even had this assurance given in writing by the marshal of the court.  During the 30th vessels carrying French troops cast anchor in the harbour of Pireus.  They had orders to disembark the next morning and, without cannon or convoy of munitions and supplies, to go and occupy certain positions and take charge of a prescribed amount of war material that was to be handed over to them.

The expedition was organized like an ordinary field manoeuvre in time of peace, with the conviction that it would encounter no resistance.  Admiral Dartige, in fact, expressed to some newspaper correspondents "his full conviction" that the cannons would be delivered without any disturbance of the peace.  He added that he "had not the slightest intention of resorting to force."

This optimism was not shared by the Athenians.  Since the night of the 29th the troops of the garrison of Athens had left their barracks to take up positions in the environs of the city, especially at Goudi and Chalandri.  By authority of a decree published on the 29th, authorizing voluntary engagements, an indirect mobilization was effected.

More than 10,000 men "volunteered" the first day and were at once incorporated in the force.  The instructions given to the military authorities prescribed that they should not hinder the disembarking of the Allied troops, but should follow them in equal numbers and oppose the execution of the orders of Admiral Dartige.

The principal buildings of Athens were occupied by Greek marines.  The inhabitants of the city who were witnesses of these preparations and of a multitude of little characteristic incidents, got the impression that a conflict was inevitable.  The newspapers informed their readers to this effect.

On Thursday, the 30th of November, at half-past six in the afternoon, Admiral Dartige received the official reply of the Greek Government, elaborated in several successive meetings of the Cabinet.  It was a refusal.  The admiral was not surprised, for he believed that Constantine I wanted to have his hand forced by a demonstration of military force.

Consequently, on the morning of Friday, December 1st, several French detachments, equipped as though for a dress parade, disembarked and advanced in different directions.  They soon clashed with troops entrenched along the two principal roads that lead from the sea to Athens.  The Greek soldiers blocked their way and opened fire.

Immediately the royalists posted on the emplacements began to fire volleys with their machine guns not only upon the Allied detachments but also on the French quartered at the Zappeion and on the annex of the English Legation, which served as the headquarters of the Anglo-French police.

The Anglo-French defended themselves valiantly.  But, caught by treachery, they endured cruel losses, for which, however, they made the enemy pay dearly.  I shall not go into numbers here, nor shall I describe the vicissitudes of this deplorable day.  I shall limit myself to a few statements of fact.

The Greeks, whether reservists or soldiers of the standing army, took the initiative in firing without the slightest provocation, and even before the Allies had tried to take away a single cannon.  They fired on troops quartered in a public building and engaged in peaceful occupations.  They fired through the windows at those of the Allies who had taken refuge in buildings where, on the word of Greek officers, they had believed themselves safe, they acted exactly as though they had received definite orders.

They were posted in such positions that it was almost impossible to reply to their fire without hitting some of the most celebrated monuments of Athens.  They had taken the ground immediately surrounding the Acropolis as their base of operations.  If the fleet, moored before Salamis with its vessels broadside toward the acropolis, had wished to destroy with its shells the batteries or the massed troops, it would have run great risk of blowing up a part of the celebrated temple.

Even if the sacred marbles had received only some slight scratches from shrapnel, the Allies would none the less have been denounced to the whole world, especially to hesitating neutrals, as barbarians that had fallen lower than Vandals or Huns.

In lack of preliminary arrangements or of orders issued in the course of the drama, the grand Allied fleet remained almost inert.  Only a few shells were fired on the garden of the Royal Palace.  Blockaded in the Zappeion, to which he had gone at the beginning of the day, Admiral Dartige was neither able to go out from the Zappeion so as to go directly to the palace, which was near at hand, nor to have orders sent down to the fleet.

The ministers of the Entente were no whit wiser or bolder than he.  We should like to be able to blot out this page of our history.  While our soldiers were falling under the blows of assassins, negotiations began once more.

This was a surrender.  Count Bosdari, Minister of Italy, agreed to it only upon the insistence of his colleagues.  "It made me blush for France," he said a few hours later to one of our countrymen.  Not only were our decimated detachments forced to beat a sad retreat, leaving to others the duty of burying their dead and of caring for their wounded, but our companies, encamped at the Zappeion, and all our other posts were re-embarked.

Admiral Dartige left the Zappeion about seven o'clock in the morning to return on board his vessel.  The survivors of the companies who had stayed with him the entire day (December 1st) endured the depth of humiliation.  As they possessed no means of transport for their material, military trucks were furnished them by the Minister of War of Constantine I on the request of the admiral and the French minister.

Along with the soldiers of the different branches of the Allied control, these brave men, among whom were to be seen many who had fought at Verdun or at Dixmude, regained the quay of embarkation under the escort of Greek soldiers.

The 2nd of December beheld even worse horrors.  According to the testimony of a witness, "the hunting out of the Venizelists was a truly horrible business to which nothing can be compared unless it be the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Eve."

The prominent Venizelists of Athens and Pireus were massacred, tortured and imprisoned.  Their houses were pillaged from garret to cellar.  The offices and presses of the liberal newspapers were destroyed.  No help was given to the pursued.  They were forced to endure outrages and sufferings of all kinds without having the consolation of hearing or seeing any help coming from the powers who ought to have protected their country.

The mayor of Pireus, escaping from torture, said to a Frenchman: "In the whole history of France there is not a single example of a similar abandonment."

It was true.  There certainly is not in the history of France an example of a like humiliation accepted so resignedly.  After the retreat of all our contingents, the evacuation of all our posts and the abandonment of the control of all public utilities, there was an exodus of our nationals.  The French of Attica, the personnel of the French School of Archaeology, our merchants and our journalists fled, with the surviving Venizelists, from that land where Constantine I ruled in blood.

On the 4th of December a cortege of Venizelists in chains marched past the French School.  French citizenship, which had been respected for a hundred years in all Greek lands, had become an object of derision.

While these new negotiations were hanging fire, Constantine I and his accomplices gloried loudly in their triumph.  The pursuit of the Venizelists, though less savage, continued and the pillage of their houses went on.  Taking the diplomatic offensive, the Lambros Cabinet sent to its representatives abroad a dispatch in which it claimed that it had been compelled to repress an insurrection.

"The investigation which is being actively pushed," said this communication, "will show the existence of an antidynastic plot, fomented by the Venizelist party, which took advantage of the riots resulting froth the skirmishes in the streets.  It was only owing to the measures taken by the government that the conspirators could be arrested and the perfect order that now reigns could be restored."

A repression so moderate of a rebellion so criminal certainly deserved congratulation, and the Minister of War actually did congratulate the troops of the Athens garrison and "the other combatants" in an order of the day, of which these passages are worth remembering:

It is with a heart overflowing with gratitude that, by order of his majesty the king, your commander-in-chief, I address to you my felicitations and congratulations on your exemplary conduct during those never-to-he-forgotten days, the 1st and 2nd of December.

Your loyalty, your spirit of self-sacrifice and your courage have saved our fatherland jeopardized by enemies who hoped to disturb public order and overthrow the dynasty.

Our enemies must now realize that such valiant troops are invincible, and I can from now on view the future with confidence.

On their part the royalist newspapers celebrated in big headlines, "the retreat of the Allied forces before the irresistible attack of the Greek troops," and enumerated the prisoners taken on the 1st of December.  Others were glad "that the heroes of Kilkish had had the honour of fighting the heroes of the Somme and Verdun."

The newspaper Nea Hemera wrote: "The 1st and 2nd of December have been, we are proud to say, two of the greatest, the holiest, the most splendidly glorious days in all Greek history.  They may be regarded as the dawn of the real independence of Greece, delivering her from the most hateful yoke which has ever menaced the existence of our race."

The Allies, who had been represented to the Greek people as having confiscated the instruments of national defence - in particular, the French and English allies (for care was taken not to raise disturbances in the neighbourhood of the Italian and Russian embassies - were denounced, through the machinations of the king, as enemies of the Greek people.

Constantine I had cunningly persuaded us to formulate claims that were sure to wound Greek national pride and had urged us to proceed to the execution of our demands by force.  He had then thrown against our unsuspecting soldiers bands of highly excited Greeks, and in short, thus killing two birds with one stone, he had suppressed those Venizelists whom he had resolved to hinder, even by fire and sword, from regaining power by legal means.

On the 16th of January, after a Crown Council, which had been specially called, the government of Athens decided to yield.  It declared "that it had no idea of procuring any limitations to the acceptance of the demands formulated by the powers and that it gave its adherence to the precise terms as announced."

On the 24th of January the Official Journal of Athens published a decree deposing from office General Callaris, commanding theist corps of the army.  On the 25th Mr. Zalocostas addressed the following letter to the representatives of the Quadruple Entente:

Conformably to the promise given in its reply to the ultimatum of the Allied governments dated January 8th, the royal government presents formal apologies to their excellencies, the Ministers of France, Great Britain, Italy and Russia because of the regrettable incidents of the 1st of December, 1916.

On the 29th, in the presence of the ministers and before detachments of the land and sea forces of the four powers, in Zappeion Square, the Greek troops commanded by a Greek general and Prince Andrew, the king's brother, marched solemnly by and saluted the Allied colours.  On the same day, Mr. Zalocostas informed M. Guillemin that the dissolution of the societies of reservists had been declared and that the judiciary had been charged with the extension of this measure.

Such was the outcome of this long diplomatic duel.  We obtained a nominal satisfaction, but in reality Constantine I came out of the conflict not only exonerated but with reputation enhanced.  Under the inspiration of his hidden councillors who were always with him, he continued to elude the effective execution of the guarantees accepted by his government.

This diplomatic bickering was succeeded by skirmishing between the Allies and the administration.  The time-limit of fifteen days, set by the declaration of the 8th of January, elapsed, but the prescribed transfers of troops and war material had not been effected, the controls which had been provided for had not been established, and the reparation to the victims of the 1st and 2nd of December had not been made.

Mr. Lambros and his civil and military coadjutors employed every artifice to avoid the execution of the conditions laid down by the Entente.  The soldiers transported to the Peloponnesus made their way back again in citizen's dress or on military leave of absence; or better yet, such men as were needed north of the Isthmus of Corinth were dressed up as police, if indeed they were not turned into comitadjis outright.

Lies were told about the contents of cases of weapons, and arms were cached in the earth.  Informed of this by the Allied controllers, General Caubone, the new military attaché of France, presented claim on claim.  Messrs. Lambros and Zalocostas dissimulated, denied, protested their good-will, evaded the issue and were profuse in promises.

Meanwhile, the royalist newspapers invented calumny on calumny against the Allies.  Their principal argument was furnished them in the continuation of the blockade; they proclaimed that the Entente was starving the people; they organized indignation meetings, and saw that repeated entreaties and petitions were sent to the king.

In order not to permit public opinion to be led astray, the ministers of the Entente, on the 19th of February, caused to be published in the newspapers a declaration to the Greek people summing up the situation as follows:

The representatives of the Allies have already called the attention of the royal government to the hostile attitude of the Greek press and to the danger that Greece will incur if she persists in fostering public excitement and in making attacks that are as often as not founded on calumny and lies.

For example, in the matter of the blockade, certain newspapers are trying to spread the impression that this is unjustly maintained since Greece has, as they say, fulfilled all her engagements.

This is manifestly inexact.  The military control of the Allies cannot take the responsibility of declaring that the promised guarantees have been given, while there remains in continental Greece a great quantity of arms, the existence of which is recognized by the Greek Government itself since it has prescribed to the authorities the date on which they must be surrendered.

The Allied control is all the less justified in consenting to leave these arms on this side of the Peloponnesus, since they might be employed by the hostile organizations which continue to exist in all parts of Greece and especially in Thessaly, where they constitute a perpetual menace to the oriental army.

Other important facts have been brought directly to the knowledge of the Greek Government by the chief of the Allied control - for example, the laying of mines on the banks of the Corinth canal.

In these circumstances the Greek people ought not to be surprised that the Allies, in default of that correct attitude which they have a right to expect on the part of Greece, cannot regard the guarantees stipulated in the note of January 8th as having yet been yielded.

Nevertheless, far from being indifferent to the sufferings of an innocent people, the Allied powers have already looked into the question of what measures they will take to furnish Greece with food supplies just as soon as circumstances will permit.

In consequence, the Allied ministers call the attention of the Greek Government once more to the grave responsibility that it would incur if it tolerated any longer the excesses of the anti-Venizelist press, which seems to have no other design than to delude public opinion and thus hinder the reestablishment of friendly relations between Greece and the Allied powers.

This appeal to common sense provoked in Greece a redoubling of recriminations and calumnies.  New journals were even created specially charged with vilifying the Allies.  Ever since the 2nd of December the Venizelist newspapers had ceased to appear.  The public could only look for information to the organs of King Constantine.

It was thus kept in an utterly abnormal state of ferment.  The Lambros Cabinet took advantage of this to oppose to the demands of the Allies exceptions or contestations that were increasingly irritating.

On the 19th of April, in a meeting at Saint-Jean-de-Maurienna, Messrs. Ribot, Lloyd George, Boselli and Sonnino discussed, among other subjects, the Greek question.  Their decision was not divulged, but a few days later the court at Athens showed symptoms of uneasiness.

The rumour of Mr. Lambros' resignation was current.  Mr. Lambros, a mere tool of the king, had no special reason for withdrawing nor even any desire to do so.  If the power left his hands, it was because the monarch judged it advantageous to sacrifice this minister to the supposed rancour of the Entente.

There was some talk of Mr. Zaimis, who had become once more the governor of the National Bank, as future Prime Minister.  These tentative moves had a somewhat cool reception in the French press.  The change of person, as proposed, would have brought us no satisfaction.  For some time, there was no further mention of it.

But another rumour spread.  An intention to abdicate in favour of the Crown Prince was attributed to Constantine I.  The French press observed that neither Greece nor the Entente would gain anything by the change.  Since, after the appointment of the Ribot ministry, the censor had allowed greater freedom to the press, it demanded the definitive and radical settlement of the Greek question.  It demanded of the powers that had signed the declaration of the 8th of January to reclaim their liberty of action in accordance with the formal clause that had provided for this eventuality, and to act vigorously in Attica, or at least to permit the provisional government to act by its own agencies in Thessaly and the rest of the kingdom.

These articles in the French journals were much commented on in Athens.  People believed that they saw in them the precursors of grave measures.

On the first of May the Congress of Hellenic Colonies, assembled at Paris, declared Constantine I and all his dynasty deposed from the throne and from all royal prerogatives.  At the same time it "appealed to the benevolence of the Allied powers no longer to hinder any province from giving its adherence freely to the national government at Salonika" and begged them "to recognize the Greek Republic just as soon as the assembly called to constitute it should have proclaimed it."

Then the Zaimis clique appeared once more, and was accepted on the 3rd of May.  After long parleys Mr. Zaimis consented to leave his position at the National Bank to take upon himself once more the prime ministry with the portfolio of foreign affairs.  Almost all his colleagues were professed anti-Venizelists.

Mr. Zaimis had very little support in the press.  Treated as a suspect by the royalist editors who had been besought to conceal their sentiments so as not to bring discredit on the new royal cabinet, he was described by most of the Venizelists as a man of straw.  The Makedonia characterized him as "the Pilate of crucified Greece."

In France a marked distrust of him was evinced.  Although he declared that his entire program consisted in the reestablishment of friendly relations with the Entente, he was suspected of holding to these friendly relations only in order to permit the king to gain more time and to corner the grain-harvest of Thessaly for the exclusive advantage of the royalists.

Besides, General Dousmanis, Colonel Metaxas, Messrs. Streit, Mercouris and Co. kept hold of the power both public and secret, and with it remained in the confidence of Constantine I.  Mr. Zaimis did, to be sure, immediately put at the disposal of the commission on indemnities a meeting place for which they had up to that time looked in vain.

He did, to be sure, announce that measures had been taken against the armed bands that were overrunning Thessaly, and he also let it be known that he was going to send away from Athens seven colonels who were known to be hostile to the Entente.  Very small guarantees these to the Entente!

As a matter of fact, during the entire month of May, the agents of control under General Cauboue kept discovering arms and ammunition concealed in the capital itself, or in the suburbs or the provinces.

The police continued to dress themselves up as comitadjis, and the comitadjis to disguise themselves as police.  The officers of Constantine's staff elaborated as assiduously as ever the plans for cooperating with the German-Bulgarians against the day so eagerly longed for, the day when the soldiers of William II would descend on Salonika.

Though to all appearance dissolved, the League of Reservists was reconstituted under the direction of a nephew of Mr. Gounaris by the name of Sayas.  In reply to objections on the part of the Minister of the Interior, Mr. Sayas threatened the government "with an explosion of popular anger."

As a substitute for the League of Reservists or as a superstructure on it, there was formed, under the auspices of Mr. Livieratos, a retired magistrate, a so-called "Federation" of the syndicates of the different trades and professions and of popular societies.  The royalists gave out that this was a union of labour organizations, but the real labour organizations entered a protest.

Messrs. Sayas and Livieratos, however, negotiated with Mr. Zaimis none the less freely, because of this fact, on an absolutely equal footing.  They issued a manifesto against the dismissal of the seven colonels.

These were not the only indications of a dangerous situation.  The authorities themselves assumed a provocative attitude.  On the 21st of May a decree of arrest issued by the grand jury brought before the assizes the director and manager of the newspaper Patris on the score of having published in 1916 some letters that established the part taken by Deputy Callimassiotis, a friend of Mr. Gounaris, in supplying the German submarines.

On the 29th of May the navy war-council sent forth an order for the arrest of Admiral Coundouriotis for the crime of high treason.  At the end of the same month some Venizelists were beaten and imprisoned on the island of Aegina by the police.  During the night of the 30th-31st an attempt was made to assassinate two English officers.

A few days later some French officers of the military control, on a tour of search, were obliged to turn back before a party of reservists.  The newspaper Scrip accused the Senegalese of the expeditionary force of kidnapping little children, killing and eating them.

At the same time the Constantine cult became a sort of idolatry.  On the 27th of May the second anniversary of the miraculous cure of the king by the wonder-working picture of the Panagia of Tenos, a thanksgiving service was held at the Metropolitan Church, which the Embros reported in the following words:

When the reverend orator, incomparable in the force of his logic and the brilliance of his rhetoric, had affirmed in thundering words that King Constantine was not destined to be dethroned but to be crowned with the imperial diadem in Constantinople, when he had finished chanting the hymn: 'Be victor, thou emperor and king,' the throng rushed forward to kiss the hands of the prelate, while on all sides re-echoed these cries: 'Down with the tyrants! Long live our adored king!'

On the 3rd of June, at the king's fete, the followers of Constantine were carried away by another outburst of devotion to their sovereign.  The Federation of Workingmen presented the monarch with an iron cross, begging him to wear it whenever he appeared before the troops with the baton of a German field marshal in his hand.

After the Te Deum at the cathedral Constantine I betook himself to the University to take part in the dedication of his own bust.  Two other busts of him were to be dedicated in the course of the month, one at the barracks of the 7th regiment of infantry and the other at the Chamber of Deputies.  Fate, however, was reserving for Constantine a ceremony of quite a different nature.

During the month of May the Cabinets of Paris and London had come to an agreement.  Their chiefs had held additional conferences in Paris and in London.  Assured of the agreement of Russia and the consent of Italy, they had resolved on radical measures.

Their decisions, the outcome of secret deliberations, became known only after they had been put in execution, and even then not fully.  We may quite certainly say that they had a double object: the sequestration of the harvests in Thessaly so that they would profit all Greece, and the reestablishment of the constitutional regime.

Suspecting what was to happen as to the first part of the program, Mr. Zaimis proposed to yield to the Allies a portion of the Thessalian harvest.  As to the second part, the government in Athens did not know exactly in what this reestablishment of the constitutional regime consisted.  But it flattered itself that it could bring it to naught.  The time has not come to tell what supreme efforts were put forth in order to make the Allies' enterprise miscarry as it had done in the month of June 1916.  This time these efforts failed.

On Wednesday, June 6th, the Athenians suddenly learned of the arrival in Greek waters of M. Jonnart, a French senator, invested with the rank of High Commissioner of the protecting powers.  Then they noticed a great movement of warships in the bay of Salamis, the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth.

The royalists insinuated that it was going to be just the same with the Jonnart mission as with the earlier demonstrations of the Allies.  Then they saw the vessel that carried the High Commissioner, after a short stop at Salamis, sail off to Salonika.  What passed between M. Jonnart, Mr. Venizelos and General Sarrail is not known.

On the 10th M. Jonnart returned to Salamis.  On the 11th, in the morning, the lightning struck.  In an interview with Mr. Zaimis, the High Commissioner of the three protecting powers demanded in their name the abdication of King Constantine and the designation of his successor, to the exclusion of the Crown Prince.

What then became of the tens of thousands of heroes who had sworn to defend the king, their idol, to the very last drop of their blood.  They raised a hue and cry, turbulent throngs filled the streets, but there was no breach of the peace.  What were the thoughts that passed through the mind of Constantine I?

After bitter reflections on the vicissitudes of mundane affairs, he decided to submit.   On Tuesday, between 9 and 10 in the morning, Mr. Zaimis informed M. Jonnart that "His Majesty the King, solicitous as ever of the interests of Greece alone, has decided to leave the country along with the Crown Prince and has designated as his successor Prince Alexander," his second son.

Constantine I did not officially abdicate nor did his eldest son resign his claim to the throne.  They hoped without doubt to be restored to Greece by William II, the Conqueror.  They left the throne in the meantime to a complacent prince who would keep the crown for them, and they left the political power to a minister who would care for their interests.

But they went away without daring to defend themselves or to have any defence made for them.  They fled before the storm, carrying with them the curse of Hellas.  Embarked for Italy, they had not yet reached the residence of their choice when their hopes were dashed.

While they slipped out of Lugano amid manifestations of public scorn, Mr. Venizelos was starting for Athens.  After a brief consultation, the High Commissioner decided, with Mr. Venizelos and Mr. Zaimis agreeing, that halfway measures would do no good and that the best thing was to restore the power to Mr. Venizelos, who would reassemble the Chamber elected June 13, 1915.

No sooner said than done.  In consequence of the publication of a proclamation in which he boasted of his desire to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious father, Alexander I was required to apologize and to declare his willingness to respect the Constitution.

He is now only the shadow of a king, obliged to content himself with signing the papers that his Prime Minister puts before him.  The latter, acclaimed by the crowd, which, according to the statement of the paid agents of the German propaganda, hated him was sure to tear him in pieces, has taken up with a firmer hand than ever, and with an increased prestige, the direction of national affairs.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

A "Dixie" (from the Hindi degci) was an army cooking pot.

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