Who Burned Izmir?
In 1920 Izmir was given up to the Greeks by the Ottomans as part of a Peace agreement proposed by Churchill. Although intended as an allied occupation under the armistice terms, it was in fact a Greek occupation which quickly became an excuse to extend the boundaries of Greece across the Aegean in accordance with the Greek dream of rejuvenating the Byzantine Empire.
In a three week battle Ataturk threw the Greeks back into the sea, captured the Greek commanding general and re-entered Izmir triumphant. The retreating Greek army massacred thousands of Turkish families who were mostly women and children since their men were away at war. Buildings were burned to the ground. Since then various allegations have been made trying to implicate the Turks for the burning of Izmir. Here we have the text of a little seen document from a witness which clearly absolves the Turks of any involvement in the attempted destruction of the city.
Here are the impressions of Mark Prentiss an American industrial engineer who was a special representative of the Near East Relief. Being in Izmir at the time he later wrote his impressions. He also sent on January 11, 1923 a copy of this manuscript to Rear Adm. Mark L. Bristol of the United States, the US High Commissioner at the American Embassy in Istanbul.
” Nearly everybody in America, it appears, is convinced that the Turks were responsible for the fire which added the final touches of tragedy to the Smyrna [Izmir] horror. The unanimity and firmness of this conviction surprised me at first, as I believe it would have surprised anybody else, of whatever nationality or political allegiance, who had recently come from the scene of the disaster. The motive, usually considered of supreme importance in crimes of this sort, does not clearly point to the Turks. They had captured Smyrna. The city, as it stood, was one of the greatest prizes ever taken in Oriental warfare. The Turks had unquestioned title to its foods, its commodities of all sorts, its houses. It was a store house of supplies most urgently needed for its peoples and armies. Why destroy it?
It was a matter of common knowledge, on the other hand, that the Armenians and Greeks were determined not to let this booty fall into the hands of their hated enemies. There was a generally accepted report in Smyrna, for several days before the fire, that an organized group of Armenian young men had sworn to burn the city if it fell to the Turks..
Evidence gathered by Paul Grescovitch, Chief of the Smyrna Fire Department, and carefully checked by myself, together with information which came to me from other sources, points to the Armenians as authors of the fire. The series of events which led up to the final terror on the Smyrna waterfront, as I was enabled to follow them, began in the first days of September, when Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol, United States High Commissioner at Constantinople, organized the Smyrna Emergency Relief Committee in anticipation of what might happen in the city if it fell, as then seemed inevitable, to the Turks.
The USS Destroyer Lawrence, under command of Capt. Wolleson proceeded to Smyrna, carrying this committee, of which I was a member. We arrived on the evening of Friday, the eighth of September , in time to see the last of the Greek army leaving the city…
One of the most serious situations that confronted the committee was the possibility of fire. This situation developed into one of extreme anxiety when we learned that the entire city police department, together with nearly all the Greeks who were members of the fire department, had deserted their posts and fled the city in fear of the approaching Turkish army. I made it my business to make a general survey of the situation, and I found that the fire fighting forces consisted of approximately sixty men with two small station houses. I found two reasonably good fire engines and about half a dozen hand machines that were used along the waterfront by dropping an intake hose over the sea wall into the water. There were only a few buildings in the city over three stories high, the great majority being two…
A report has been widely circulated in this country to the effect that the Armenian hospital, where some fifteen hundred refugees had gathered was burned by Turkish soldiers who slaughtered many of the helpless occupants. The truth of the matter is that on Tuesday, early in the afternoon, in response to an emergency appeal, I had gone to the hospital accompanied by Dr. Post and two nurses, all of us members of the Near East Relief Staff.
While I was there a squad of from fifteen to twenty Turkish soldiers, under the command of the captain, came to take over the hospital for Turkish military purposes. The refugees were searched, as they came from the grounds, and arms of various sorts sufficient to fill a truck were taken from them. All of them, men, women and children, who had taken refuge both in the hospital building and in the adjoining grounds were dispersed by six o’clock that afternoon. The captain in command had written instructions from the Turkish commander to take possession of the hospital and to prepare it for immediate occupancy. He told us that they would begin moving Turkish patients to the hospital that night. He also mentioned that he had orders to shoot the refugees if they had refused to disarm, and that he certainly would have done so but for their unexpected docility in giving up their weapons. He credited their willingness to disarm to the presence of the Americans, Dr. Post, the two nurses and myself….
On the following morning, Wednesday, the thirteenth of September, the situation was critical in the extreme. Paul Griscovich, Chief of the Smyrna Fire Department, told me that he had discovered bundles of discarded clothing, rags and bedding, covered with petroleum, in several of the institutions recently deserted by Armenian refugees. Grescovich impressed me as a thoroughly reliable witness. I had met and had a long talk with him three days previously, on Sunday morning. Fortunately, I needed no interpreter, as he speaks English fluently. He is an engineer, born and educated in Austria, and has been identified with several large engineering enterprises in Turkey. Twelve years ago he became chief of the Smyrna fire department, which he continued to conduct in a very efficient manner, for that part of the world, during the Greek occupation. He told me that during the first week of September there had been an average of five fires per day with which his crippled department had to cope. In his opinion most of these fires were caused by carelessness, but some undoubtedly were of incendiary origin. The average number of fires in a normal year, he said, would be one in ten days, and the increase to five a day seemed significant.
As soon as the Turkish military authorities assumed control, Griscovich had applied for additional men and fire fighting equipment. Instead of helping him, the Turkish military governor, learning that there were still Greeks in the fire department, ordered their immediate arrest, which left the department with only thirty-seven men. Sunday night, Monday and Monday night, and Tuesday, so many fires were reported at such widely separated points that the fire department was absolutely unable to deal with them. They were extinguished by Turkish soldiers.
During Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, the Turkish soldiers shot down many Armenians who, they claimed, were caught throwing petroleum and starting fires in the Armenian quarter and also around the warehouses and station of the Cassaba Railroad. It was on Wednesday morning that Griscovich himself found evidences of incendiaries. He told me that early that morning had seen two Armenian priests escorting several thousand men, women, children from the Armenian schools and Dominican churches where they had taken refuge down to the quays. When he presently went into these institutions he found petroleum-soaked refuse ready for the torch.
The chief told me, and there is no doubt that he was sure of it, that his own firemen, as well as Turkish guards, had shot down many Armenian young men disguised either as women or as Turkish irregular soldiers, who were caught setting fires Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
At 11:20 Wednesday morning, at least half a dozen fires were reported almost simultaneously around the freight terminal warehouses and the passenger station of the Aidine Railroad.
It is noteworthy that these fires broke out in buildings which it was greatly to the advantage of Turks to preserve, and to the advantage of enemies to destroy.
At 12:00 o’clock five fires were reported around the Armenian hospital. At about the same time, two fires were reported at the Armenian Club, and a few minutes later several fires started simultaneously around the Cassaba Railroad station.
Shortly after noon Griscovich, convinced that the city was doomed, again went to the military authorities to ask for help, and again it was not forthcoming. It was not until six o’clock in the evening that he was given a command of 100 soldiers to serve under his direction and it was eight o’clock at night before the soldiers began the destruction of buildings by bombs, in order to check the spread of the fire.
Early in the afternoon, I was at the headquarters of Kazim Pasha; Turkish military governor of the district, and from his window I could see smoke from several parts of the city. I called his attention to this, but he assured me they were of no consequence. He said that he had been worried about the possibility of conflagration, and that his soldiers had received instructions to prevent it. When I left him I made an appointment to return at five o’clock that afternoon but the fire had spread so rapidly, the people had been driven from their homes down to the quay, in such numbers and the panic was so great, that I found it impossible to reach his headquarters to keep the appointment. During the afternoon the wind began to rise and blow from the Southeast which I was told was most unusual at that season of the year, and by night a perfect gale was blowing. People who had lived in Smyrna many years told me they had never known a wind of such violence during the summer months. Dense smoke and sparks were blown across the decks of the US Destroyer Litchfield, which after midnight was anchored 780 yards offshore.
It was not until three days later that I saw Grescovich again. He told me he had no sleep for five days and nights and he looked the part…. On that, and several succeeding days, we explored the great part of the burned area of the city, and I made notes of the most important things he told me. Later, when Lloyd’s men came to ascertain the extent the damage, he refused to make any statements at all.
During several weeks after the fire I had an opportunity to talk with many Turkish commanders, and they were all of one mind in leveling either bitter or philosophical accusations at their enemies for destroying the city. They were contemptuous of the suggestion, made in a few quarters, that they had any responsibility for the burning. “Why should we burn the city?” they would ask. “Smyrna, with all its wealth and treasure, was ours. The fleeing Greek army had abandoned huge quantities of military stores and food supplies that were desperately needed by our armies and civilians. These have been destroyed, together with the warehouses and stations where many fires broke out. Besides, the fleeing Greeks and Armenians, many of them wealthy as you know, had abandoned everything in their homes and their stores. We were in absolute and undisputed possession. Do you think that we are such fools as to have destroyed everything?”
My attention has been called to many statements published broadcast in this country that the Turks were seen pouring petroleum around the American Consulate. I was in the vicinity of the Consulate most of the time and saw no petroleum.
It is a fact worthy of attention of the honest historian that very few people in Smyrna at the time of the fire, or during the succeeding weeks, believed that the Turks were responsible for it. That the Turks were grossly…negligent in the matter of ordinary precautions against an outbreak of fire, we all realized, and that they were tragically inefficient in fighting the fire was obvious to us all, but I have been able to find no evidence that either Turkish soldiers or Turkish civilians deliberately fired the city or wished its destruction.
The evidence all points in another direction….
Original article published by www.Turcoman.btinternet.co.uk