Greece in WW1

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

Greece enters World War I - Extensive purges

1917-1919

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

"The revolutionary Government once settled in Athens [see: Beginning of problems – National division 1915-17] tried to place the Country on a war footing by the side of the Allies.  The work this new Government undertook was really Herculean, given that the majority of the population had enemy feelings against the Allies – because of their unseemly actions- and didn’t believe to their victory.

 

The Government was thus obliged to take draconian measures to neutralize reactions.  If we wish today to judge her impartially, we must justify her actions up to this point.  Removals from service, imprisonments and even shootings are very tough measures that can however be justified by the supreme laws of war, provided they are applied with justice and are limited to absolutely necessary cases. Unfortunately however, purges were often only due to personal differences and took such dimensions that, instead of bridging progressively the gap and follow united our new destiny, passions were sparked to such degree that when victory came some people didn’t even celebrate.  It is quite possible that a lot of what had happened was due to the initiative of lower level officials and wasn’t in the intentions of the Government.  This is exactly one of the significant drawbacks of mutinies; those who drag their subordinates to revolt cannot easily assert themselves on them, even if they dispose force.

 

The Navy also suffered from this ordeal, initially at a large scale, eventually because of the proportionally large  number of officers and crews that hadn’t complied with the invitation addressed by Admiral Kountouriotis to join him in Thessalonica.  The first measure taken was to suspend from active service most of the officers that didn’t participate in the mutiny and I was part of this group. Next, several officers were imprisoned in the ‘Averof’ jail, without being charged for any wrongdoing.  From those imprisoned some were brought to trial, condemned and transferred to the ‘Idgedin’ prison in Crete, while others were dislocated to the island of Santorini. A large number from those suspended from active service, especially superior officers, were removed from service and dislocated.  The openings that were thus created were covered by promotions, following the cancellation of those done by the previous Government. In parallel another measure was taken in favour of those who took part in the mutiny that created a major upheaval in the hierarchy. Time spent in Thessalonica was counted in double, as wartime service, thus many officers were passed-over by their juniors.  This new hierarchy was definitely cancelled in 1920.  After the bad example of promotions previously made by the “Government of Athens, it was to be expected that similar –if not worse- measures will follow.

 

From July 1917, the French started returning our ships that they had seized, to reman and be used in war operations. As it was impossible to complete their staffs by only those who had participated in the mutiny and those in Athens who shared their political beliefs, were gradually recalled to active duty those who had been suspended from duty but were removed from service.  The positions of ship commander were initially entrusted to officers that took part in the mutiny and to few sharing the same ideology.

 

I was among the first officers recalled to duty by mid- August 1917 and was initially placed at the Salamis Naval Base, where I had my first contact with the new situation:  When, accompanied by a colleague that had also been recalled to duty, we reported for duty to the Commander of the Naval Base, a very fanatic officer, he told us: “ The Service, in spite of being aware of your political ideology, has recalled you in active service. You must realize the obligations you are assuming”.  I assured him that “As always, we will do our duty with honour and scrupulously”. “That’s not enough”, answered the Commander and sent us away saying, “go”.  Following this exchange I was placed as head, or rather storekeeper, of a Marine Charts Office located in an underground of the Naval Base.  It was just as well that I didn’t have to assume these important duties for too long, as by mid-September 1917, was ordered to board as executive officer the destroyer “LONGHI”.

 

Executive officer of the destroyer “LONGHI”

 

One cannot easily analyze the feelings of the royalist officers who had assumed active war duty during that period and I doubt that other military officers had ever been in such situation.  Our perceptions of military honor and duty imposed that we offer all our will and physical force to succeed in the struggle we had unwillingly been dragged into; and indeed these perceptions regulated all our actions.  As Greek patriots, however, that had the wrong conviction that the enemy would be the final victor, were deeply grieved that our Country was being dragged to catastrophe. As human beings we were feeling compassion towards our compatriots - and especially our colleagues- that were suffering from the purges, their only crime being that they were sharing the same ideology with us.  Finally, each one of us was personally suffering, realizing that he was being passed-over by his juniors in the hierarchy whose only war experience was – till that moment- their participation in the mutiny and being under continuous observance because of his political opinions.

 

Although my assignment as executive officer of the destroyer “LONGHI” did not correspond to my seniority, it created nevertheless reactions among the “venizelist” officers.   I owe this assignment to the insistence of my commander Lieutenant Commander Theoharis, an officer who had not taken part in the mutiny but had supported their ideology, who asked for me as his executive officer and personally guaranteed for my loyalty under the new regime.

 

There was no celebration to mark the return by the French of the destroyer “LONGHI”. The French flag was lowered one evening and the Greek flag was raised the following morning. The French Commander of the ship invited us to dinner; His officers were especially cordial, as if nothing had happened, and the Greek Commander reciprocated.  At that time, I was unable to express similar feelings and was hard-pressed to keep an attitude of cold courtesy.  I could not imagine that, not before long, conditions would change significantly and I would become closely related to the French Navy.

 

The ships that were returned to the Hellenic Navy were in a bad general condition from the point of view of maintenance and cleanness.  This made a special impression upon the Greek sailors who were always trying to keep their ships in an exceptionally good condition, even at war–time. The submarine accumulators had been left too long un-charged and were destroyed. This resulted in the premature de-commissioning of our submarines.

 

There was an important shortage of junior officers and thus the staff of the destroyer “LONGHI” included, besides me, a reserve officer from the Merchant Marine and an Ensign that had just graduated from the Naval School of Cadets. Half of the crew was made up by men who had participated in the mutiny and had interrupted all relations with discipline and who considered that by taking part to the mutiny they had fulfilled their duty to their Country. The non-commissioned officers on the other hand were chosen by the Commander, came from both political sides and were very good.

 

Initially, the light ships returned by the French were placed under the orders of the French Admiral from whom their were getting their orders through a Greek Captain detached by him and who was boarding the battleship “KILKIS”, used as floating repair ship.  Later the Greek Commander of the Light Fleet, still based on the b/s “KILKIS” that had moved to the port of Piraeus, stopped reporting to the French Admiral and was placed under the direct orders of the Minister of the Navy. The escort missions of convoys were not regulated by the Greek Commander, but by the British Captain of the navigation control service.  The port of Piraeus originally served as base for our light crafts, then the four ‘LEON’ type destroyers and the b/s “AVEROF” were transferred under the orders of the British Admiral at Moudros Bay (at the island of Lemnos) and had thus the privilege to sail with the Allied Fleet in the Dardanelles Straits, when victory came.

 

The destroyer “LONGHI” was in need of a long overhaul and of training of her crew.  With the intensification of the submarine war in the Mediterranean a large number of convoy escorts was needed and the French Admiral asked us a few days after the delivery of the ship to assume the execution of missions.  While executing such missions, we realized that without radical repairs of her engines sailing would be un-safe; thus a general overhaul of the ship that lasted two months was decided. After the overhaul the ship was continuously on the move for as long I served aboard.  The most frequent missions were escorting convoys from Piraeus to Crete, to South Evoikos Gulf, to the Isthmus of Corinth and back.  At first we were only sailing at night.  When escorting convoys to Crete we would spend the day in the island of Melos, where we would take-in coal on our way back to Piraeus.  It is indeed strange that until the end of the war we continued applying the night only sailing rule, given that since 1918 the Allies had reached the conclusion that submarine attacks against convoys were more frequent at night than during the day when air attack risks didn’t yet exist.  Most officers of our Navy had kept this perception until the Greek–Italian war of 1940-41 and as a result submarine training for night attacks was neglected.  During World War I convoy organization was lacking if compared to World War II.  Communication with the escorted ships of various nationalities was only done by voice and in various languages, while the captains of most of the merchant vessels needed continuous urging to keep their regular position.  The institution of convoy Commander didn’t exist and before departure there was no Captains’ meeting with the Escort Commander to provide explanations on the sailing instructions.

 

In December 1918, the destroyer “LONGHI” was ordered to escort for several days a merchant ship that called at most islands of the Cyclades to embark and transport to Piraeus mobilized reservists.  A very sad event took place during that trip that was very characteristic of the situation created by the national division.   The sailing had been very tiresome but the crew executed his duties uncomplaining, with the exception of a few sailors of the mutiny who were grudging.  When these men went ashore on the island of Naxos to execute a chore they got drunk and refused to return onboard, claiming that the Executive Officer being royalist and germanophile was harassing them on purpose!  It even seems that the police director of Naxos, a fanatic venizelist, was encouraging them.  We sent the master-at-arms, a fine non-commissioned officer that had also participated in the mutiny, to bring them back and our Commander ordered them put to confinement.  When we returned to Piraeus they were transferred from the ship. The Commander asked their penal prosecution but there was no follow-up. They were enjoying immunity!

 

Acting Commander of the destroyer “LONGHI”

 

Serving on the destroyer “LONGHI” was for me a fine opportunity for naval training.  I was enjoying the complete trust of my commander who had not only entrusted me with internal service matters but had also gave me the opportunity to command the ship at sea when he was busy in the Athens Headquarters. This happened quite frequently and I even commanded the destroyer “LONGHI” at her only mission abroad. Along with another destroyer we escorted the ocean liner “PATRIS” to Port Said, Egypt to transport reservists from Egypt to Piraeus. We were the first Greek war-ship to arrive at Port Said during the war period and the large Greek community reserved us an excellent reception. This community, unlike most communities outside Greece, was mostly royalist and as a result I received a special treatment, as soon as they were informed of my beliefs.  It made an impression upon me that, having not lived the days we had lived in Greece, political passions had not obscured their strong patriotic feelings and they were wishing at the same time victory for the Allies and the return to the throne of King Constantine.  As a return for their hospitality they begged me to send them a copy of the historical war-song of royalists “the Eagle’s son”.  To simply own that piece of music was enough to be court-martialed at that period.  Nevertheless, I was unable to refuse their request and sent with the first destroyer sailing for Egypt the only copy I owed to, thanks to the help of an officer sharing the same ideology.

 

A few days after our return in Piraeus my Commander was transferred to the destroyer “KERAVNOS”, a new commander took-over and the conditions of service changed drastically for me.  The new Commander had taken no part in the mutiny but was a supporter and was trying to show devotion to the regime. He was distrustful from nature, was not dealing only with matters of his responsibility but was interfering in every minor detail of the Executive Officer’s duties.  To gain the crew’s sympathy he was providing ample benefits to them and the result was that restored discipline was tottered again. While he was not considered a good skipper he mistrusted the naval abilities of his officers, the young Ensign, the experienced reserve merchant marine captain and the Executive Officer.  This situation became so untenable that I reported to the Commander of the Light Fleet G. Kakoulidis, a leader of the mutiny bur a fair person and gentleman, and after explaining with the utmost frankness the reasons of my request, asked to be transferred to another ship.  The Commander accepted my request and I was soon transferred to the destroyer “KERAVNOS” as Executive Officer, under the orders of my old chief, Lieutenant Commander Theoharis.

1919, Lieutenant Commander Theoharis, Commander of the destroyer "KERAVNOS"

 

Executive Officer of the destroyer “KERAVNOS”

 

I was very pleased with my new assignment for one more reason: the new ship had a double displacement and could be used to more interesting missions. Her only problem was her engines; she was delivered with defective engines, they had suffered several damages during the period she was used by the French and were in frequent need of repairs.

 

On the destroyer “KERAVNOS” anchored in Piraeus we heard the joyful bell ringing in celebration of the signing of armistice. Greece was once more on the side of the winners and the legendary battleship “AVEROF” carried the Greek flag in front of the Constantinople Palace.  Our hearts should have been filled with feelings of joy, our external victory however came at a time when Greeks were internally divided to winners and losers and the latter had mixed feelings. During the last period, many people were in mourning, much economic ruination happened, dreams got scattered and careers were prematurely interrupted.   For Greece, the war is not over yet, purges continue and no one knows for how long.

 

The pessimistic forecast of royalists concerning the outcome of the war was proved wrong.  At least, those of us royalists who have been called to participate in the war had our conscience quiet knowing that we served conscientiously, even if we were not believing to the success of our efforts. The fact was that we were in a disadvantageous position compared to our colleagues who had participated in the mutiny and if this situation were to continue we would be forced to change profession.  In the meantime we continued being in a war situation and had to do our duty to the very end.  Since the armistice, new horizons had been opened to the Greek Navy.  Our Fleet sailed through the Propontis (Sea of Marmora) and the Bosphore and headed to the Black Sea to cooperate with the Greek and Allied armies that were fighting against the Bolsheviks.  Since the end of 1918, Greek war ships were anchored in Sebastopol and in February 1919 the destroyer “KERAVNOS” was joining the Greek Squadron anchored in Constantinople.

 

We sailed through the Dardanelles Straits with great emotion, were one could still see traces of the unfortunate attempt of the Allies to break into the Straits, and were amazed when for the first time we faced in the distance the historical monuments of the formerly Capital of the Byzantine Empire.  Our feeling of national pride made us forget for a moment our discords, passions and chagrins of the last three years.

1919, Lieutenant Gr.Mezeviris, Executive Officer (1st from left)

and colleagues on the destroyer "KERAVNOS" sailing in the Black Sea

 

We stayed a few days in Constantinople and then the destroyer “KERAVNOS” was ordered to sail to the port of Vatum in the Black Sea.  This mission was finally cancelled because after sailing for a few hours we faced such adverse weather conditions that our ship with her defective engines could hardly cope with and we had to put back into port.  When the weather conditions improved, we were ordered to sail to Sebastopol to reinforce the Greek Squadron anchored there, comprising the battleship “KILKIS” and some destroyers.

 

In Sebastopol we had our first contact with the situation prevailing at that time in Russia.  The majestic Naval Base was giving a sad sight of abandonment and decomposition.  The long series of moored ships presented the sight of ships-ghosts. Very few sailors were on board and officers mainly guarded the ships. On the streets we were meeting with patrols of the voluntary army made up of ragged officers and some non-commissioned officers. The lousiness of the formerly Imperial Navy was becoming more apparent when compared to the Allied forces moored in Sebastopol, especially the British and the Greek.  Unlike the British and the Greek, some of the French ships presented a poor condition of crafts and crews, showing that their long stay in these waters had been detrimental.  This impression was soon confirmed when some cases of communist mutiny broke-up on some French ships. 

1919, Lieutenant Gr. Mezeviris Executive Officer on

 the destroyer "KERAVNOS", sailing in the Black Sea

 

From Sebastopol we were ordered to sail to Odessa to cooperate with the French ships moored and the Greek-French troops operating there.   Our stay there was planned to be long but the fast development of the situation made it short.  Opportunity for war action didn’t arise.

 

The central district of Odessa presented the sight of a big city that still retained traces of her old glory. The luxurious restaurants of the city, with only apparent shortage the dubious cleanliness of their napery, were full of refugees, generals, princes of the Caucasus with strange uniforms and others.  They were all spending lavishly the last remains of their fortune, not caring for the next day.  How many of those weren’t living the final days of their life?

 

In contrast to the cheerfulness prevailing in the mundane restaurants and nightclubs, in the workers dwellings the situation was very dangerous.  All nightlong shots were heard and sailors returning at night to their ships were frequently shot at.  Some night towards the end of our stay ships moored in the port were ordered to leave as soon as possible, as an attack against them was imminent. Since then we remained continuously with the engines running and contact with the shore was not allowed.

 

The situation finally became so critical that it was decided to evacuate the allied troops. As soon as this became known, many of the locals and the refugees rushed to the port to embark on the ships, but it had been expressly forbidden to take them onboard.  Scenes of horror took place on the coast.  Wounded officers, women and children were begging to get in the boats of the war ships and the crews, tears in the eyes, had to push them, knowing that thus they were sending them to their death.  I had been ordered to board a Greek cargo ship, especially provided to transport Greek refugees wishing to leave, to supervise their boarding.  Initially, based on my orders, I had refused boarding to many Russians but finally, as there was still space available, I took onboard the last of those asking to be transported and among them a general of the imperial guard.  It is impossible to describe the feelings of gratitude of these unfortunate people, which we helped reach Piraeus. On March 25, 1919, the evacuation of Odessa was completed and we sailed for Sebastopol.  Since early that morning we hearing cannonades from the outskirts of the city and just when we were leaving the red flag of the Bolsheviks was being raised on the City Hall.

1919, Commander Theoharis, Executive Officer Mezeviris

and civilians onboard the destroyer "KERAVNOS"

 

In Sebastopol we found a similar situation because the Bolshevik army was approaching Crimea and the Allied forces were not sufficient to defend her.  All the Russian officers were agonizing not knowing if at the evacuation they would find a place on the ships.  The ships had been allowed to get from the Naval Base warehouses whatever could be of any use to them. I went there to check. Everything was in a state of abandonment and others had already taken most useful items.  At the submarine base I only met an officer who told me: “Please, take as much you can, if you have tugs tow away the submarines, don’t let the Bolsheviks take them”.  I finally took from the warehouses many electrical instruments that were added to the warehouses of our Naval Base.  The Commander of the Greek Squadron asked the French Admiral’s approval to tow some of the submarines to Greece but permission was not granted.  The submarines were finally destroyed before the evacuation.

1919, the destroyer "KERAVNOS" anchored in Constantinople

 

In April 1919, we sailed under adverse weather conditions for Constantinople and after a short stay there we returned to the Naval Base of Salamis for general overhaul.  This trip the last for the destroyer “KERAVNOS”, a fine ship that fell victim to a spasmodic measure of our Navy and was condemned as useless material.  With an extensive overhaul it would have continued serving as a good unit of our Light Fleet for several more years.

 

With the permanent stay at the Naval Base of the destroyer “KERAVNOS”, serving onboard was without any interest for me.  It was exactly during the period that our ships were sailing to Constantinople or Smyrna where they accompanied our troops that landed there.  How happy must have been our colleagues who lived these unforgettable, but unfortunately very short, moments of the history of our Nation!”