Greece was officially neutral during the First World War, but was bitterly divided between factions supporting the opposing sides. King Constantine I sympathised with Germany and Austria, while Prime Minister Venizelos favoured the Allies. With the government divided, how were the Allies able to occupy the Greek island of Lemnos, which would prove a critical asset in both the Gallipoli and later Salonka campaigns?
|Mudros harbour. Lemnos, 1915|
The deployment of British, Australian and New Zealand troops to Greek territory for the Dardanelles assault posed an acute diplomatic problem in early 1915. Greece was officially neutral but bitterly divided between two factions supporting the opposing sides. King Constantine I had German ancestry and was married to the Kaiser’s sister; his sympathies for Germany and Austro-Hungary were clear. On the other side, Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos favoured the Allies. Greece had not fulfilled its treaty obligations to come to Serbia's aid when the Austro-Hungarians declared war on Serbia in July 1914, and both Greek society and the military were split over the adoption of neutrality as the nation's official response to the war. Venizelos eventually established a rival government in northern Greece in October 1916, but the struggle was not resolved until June 1917, when Constantine was deposed in favour of his son Alexander and Greece officially joined the Allies.
|View of Sarpi Camp on Lemnos, 1915|
Greek neutrality, not withstanding, the Gallipoli invasion fleet assembled at Lemnos in April 1915. Despite the opposition of King Constantine to this development, Venizelos's faction blocked any attempt by the Greek government to actively oppose the Allied occupation of the island. Troops practised disembarkation and rowing the boats which would carry them to the beaches. A few men went ashore and explored the villages. Many would return during the Gallipoli campaign; in September 1915, most of the exhausted New Zealand contingent on the Gallipoli Peninsula was withdrawn to Lemnos for a rest, only returning to action in November 1915. Others were evacuated to the island during the fighting, either wounded or suffering from diseases such as dysentery.
In August 1916, military officers loyal to Venizelos launched an uprising in northern Greece against the royal government in Athens. The following month, Venizelos formed a "Triumvirate of National Defence" with General Danglis and Admiral Koundouriotis. Together they established a separate government—the Provisional Government of National Defence—which entered the war on the side of the Allies in November 1916.
Adapted from "The Salonika Campaign" on the New Zealand History website.