Category Archives: Cretan Rebels

They came, they saw, they failed to conquer.

On 14th February 1897, some 1500 men of the Greek army, supported by artillery, landed in the Kolymbari/Platania area of Crete. The incursion of the Greek army into what was then legally Ottoman territory, was a culmination of an increasing amount informal support being given by Greece to Cretan Christian insurgents on the island. Upon the Greek troops’ landing, their commander, Colonel Timoleon Vassos, a former Military Attaché to King George I of Greece, read a proclamation declaring that the Island of Crete was henceforth annexed to Greece. The Ottoman response was, for once, measured, and rather than use the landing as an immediate casus belli, the Porte relied instead on the pressure put upon Greece it expected, and received, from the European Powers.

Monument to the arrival of Greek troops. Kolymbari.

Colonel Vassos and his son, Crete 1897.

For several weeks after their landing the Greek troops in Crete appeared to be in a position the threaten to take over either Canea or Candia, the two major towns on the island. However, the arrival in early February of Concert naval forces, which enforced a strict blockade of Crete thus denying Vassos food, supplies and reinforcements, followed in March by significant numbers of Concert ground troops, put an end to any such ambitions. In late March attempts by the insurgents to take the Ottoman held fortress at Kastelli-Kissamos, to the west of Canea, by mining the walls were thwarted by gunfire from H.M.S. Rodney and by the landing of 200 British and 130 Austrian sailors and marines who re-provisioned the garrison and pulled down houses near the fortress in order to prevent further mining attempts.

Meanwhile, Vassos’ attempts to move out from his base at Alikianos and on Canea were similarly blocked by the European guns and men occupying Fort Subachi to the west of the town, a force which included a field gun landed from H.M.S. Anson. Simultaneously, the effectiveness of the naval blockade on the Greeks in Crete by denying them food and supplies was illustrated when, during a visit to Vassos’ camp by Mrs Laura Ormistan-Chant, the leader of six English nurses who had gone to Greece intent on providing nursing services to the Greek army, food was so scarce that Mrs Chant offered to return to Canea and return with a cargo of flour, an offer declined by Vassos. ‘Finding the wounded in Colonel Vassos’ camp either well, dead or on the high road to recovery, Mrs Chant determined to return to Athens’. (Ironically, the well-being of the Greek soldiers was in part attributable to the Powers allowing the landing of Doctors and medical supplies under the flag of the Red Cross. )

Colonel Vassos receiving despatches at Alikianos. Illustrated London News 24 April 1897.

Colonel Vassos’ Head Quaters, Alikianos. Illustrated London News, 24 April 1897.

The threat from Greek troops to the European forces in Crete finally came to an end following the catastrophic Greek defeat in the ‘Thirty Days War’ which broke out on April 18th, when, following large-scale Greek incursions into Ottoman Macedonia, the Ottoman Empire declared war on Greece. The Ottoman army roundly defeated the Greek army and were in a position to march on Athens more or less unopposed before an armistice was imposed by pressure from the Concert. However, having won the war, the Ottoman Empire decisively lost the peace, it was not permitted to retain the land it had occupied; the Concert, still seeking to maintain stability in the region, dictated that Greece, though the initiator of hostilities, should not forfeit any significant territory and should pay a relatively modest indemnity. The terms of the armistice and eventual peace settlement did however, included the Greek renunciation of the annexation of Crete and the immediate withdrawal of all Greek troops and guns from the island.

Vassos and four of his officers left the island on 9th May, Greek forces finally being evacuated, with the assistance of the European navies who ferried Greek troops to waiting Greek merchant vessels, by the end of May. Over time, the presence on the island of the Greek troops, coupled with their impotence, had made them an embarrassment to many of the Greek population; on Vassos’ return to Greece ‘although received with respect and a mellow admiration for his romantic adventures in Crete, he was not … the popular hero he would have been a few weeks before.’
The evacuation appeared to have gone without too much difficulty. On 14th May Captain Sir Richard Poore R.N,, H.M.S Hawke, reported that the British embarked from Platania 445 men under the command of Colonel Zavellos, on board the Greek Transport steam-ship Era:

1 regiment of infantry (officers and men)………..120
1 regiment of engineers (officers and men)………250
1 detachment of Greek volunteers……………………. 75
(Also two horses and men’s accoutrements)

On the same date the Greek war-ship Paralos, under escort by the Russian war-ship Grosiastchy embarked a company of engineers, 74 men, from Atki. The Greek merchant ship Lauiron, which had to be filled with coal from H.M.S. Hawke, was sent under escort by the Austro-Hungarian Torpedo Cruiser S.M.S. Tiger, to Sphakia to collect a store of ammunition said to be there, it being deemed unwise to leave it in the hands of the local population. 20 engineers from Atki were sent to carry out this task.

The Commander of the Greek forces in Platania, Staikos (rank unknown),  initially declined to embark further men without authority from the Greek government. However, apparently after being shown a copy of the Greek translation renouncing the annexation, a document kept secret until the troops had embarked, he eventually agreed to do so.

On 18 May, the Laurion returned from Sphakia with one officer, 9 infantrymen, 800 cases of rifle ammunition, 14 cases of field gun ammunition and 42 bags of ‘boots and medical stores’. The following day boats from the Concert ships Hawke, Chazny, Re Umberto, Groziastchy and Tiger embarked more men to the Greek steamer Thespes. These numbered:

Artillerymen……………………………. 91
Greek volunteers……………………..150
Plus Six guns, 12 horses, 53 mules, 82 cases of field gun ammunition and 62 packages of pack saddles and harnesses.

Captain Poore indicated that some 400 Greek soldiers remained at Alikanos awaiting evacuation, and later the commander of the Greek forces had give his word to Poore that when the final evacuation took place, all artillery, including that supposedly owned by the Cretan Christian insurgents, would be removed from the island. However, the British archives are silent on exactly when the final men and guns departed.

French sailors evacuating Greek troops Platania. L’Illustration, 5 June 1897.

French troops evacuating Greek soldiers. L’Illustration, 5 June 1897.

Russian sailors evacuating Greek mules Platania. L’Illustration, 5 June 1897.

During the process of embarkation, the British commander, Captain Poore, became aware that the Greeks had some 40 or so Ottoman prisoners under guard, presumably those Ottoman soldiers captured at Malaxa and during other incidents, whom they wished to take with them to Greece. The demand to take them to Greece was refused and after a brief sojurn on the Thespes, the prisoners were released and transferred to European vessels.

Wounded Ottomans troops at Alikianos. Illustrated London News, 24 April 1897.

Ottoman prisoners from Malaxa at Alikianos. Illustrated London News, 24 April 1897.

In the end, the landing of the Greek troops on Crete did little to assist the cause of enosis. The Greek government had somewhat misguidedly sent sufficient men to nearly start a war with the Ottoman forces on Crete, but far too few to have any conceivable prospect of winning such a conflict. When the Powers had made their position of tentative support for the maintenance of some form of Ottoman presence on the island clear, the fate of Vassos’ expedition was sealed. Their only allies were Cretan Christian insurrectionists who, whoever good they may have deemed themselves to be in guerrilla warfare, were no match for trained European troops backed by overwhelming naval gunpower. With no prospect of reinforcement, outnumbered by superior Concert forces, let alone Ottoman forces, and suffering from the effects of the Concert embargo, the Greeks were in effect prisoners on the island and could play no significant part in the unfolding diplomatic efforts to find a resolution to the Cretan problem.


The Ottoman Navy steps in.


The Graphic. 27 March 1897. Turkish ships bombarding Cretans in Suda bay.

The Graphic. 27 March 1897.

Heavy firing took place in Suda Bay on March 10 when, for once, the Turks were the aggressors. As a general rule the Cretans begin the attack and have an hour or two of fun before the supine Turk rouses himself to reply. Then the Cretans from behind rocks and Turks in their blockhouses keep up a desultory fire until the former think it time to go home, or until they are interrupted by a shell or two from a Turkish man-of-war.


The ‘Turkish’ ship referred to appears to be the Ottoman casement ironclad Mukaddeme -i- Hayir. If so, this was probably the last time the vessel saw action. Laid down in 1870 and launched in 1872, she saw action in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 before being laid up in Constantinople. With the outbreak of hostilities in Crete in 1897 and the threat of war with Greece, the Mukaddeme -i- Hayir was inspected with a view to her re-joining the Ottoman fleet. However, the ship was in such a poor state of repair that she was never going to be able to face up to the Greek Navy and consequently her active duties were apparently limited to ‘morale boosting’ tours around the Aegean. It was presumably as part of that tour that she ended up in action off Suda Bay. In 1911 she was converted to a training ship and later into a barracks ship. She was scrapped in 1923.[1]


European views of Cretan Christians

It’s unlikely that too many of the British and other European enlisted/conscripted troops sent to Crete in 1897 had much idea about who they would be involved with on their arrival on the island. However, British and European civilians, and presumably some of the Officers, were being ‘informed’ about the parties involved in the fighting on Crete – albeit the information given often had to do more with the fanciful thinking of the journalists and illustrators rather than what was actually happening.

The massacre in Canea. as imagined by Le Petite Parisien, 1897.

(It may safely be assumed that the illustrator of the above had never been to Canea, the city isn’t in the middle of impossibly tall mountains, furthermore, turbans were banned throughout the Ottoman Empire in 1829. )

Cretan Christian Insurgents as seen by Le Petite Parisien 14 March 1897.

Insurgents lighting signal fires in the mountains. Illustrated London News, 23rd March 1897.

A band of Cretan Insurgents at Tsiliphe. Illustrated London News, 6 March 1897.

Insurgents. Illustrated London News, 1897.

The illustrator above was clearly using his imagination when it came to the armament carried by the Christians.

Cretan Christian Insurgents at Acrotiri – outside Canea.

The above group could have been some of those described by Capt. Egerton 1/Seaforths:

“……I took out about 25 men, and we marched through Halepa to the extreme Turkish outpost below Akreterion. The Insurgents showed much interest in our movements, and we were all very anxious that they should send a shot or two at us when I should have smacked in two volleys at them for firing on the British Flag, which we carried in front of us.

But though we trailed our coats all along the front of our position they were too wise to let off their “bundooks[?]”. We had to put in 4 hours out of door somehow, so we loafed about under the olive groves, passing the time of day to Turkish Officers on the outpost, and generally had rather a good time of it.”

Cretan Christian Insurgents 1897.

The uniformed soldiers on the right hand side appear to be Russians, possibly indicating that the photograph was taken in the Rethymnon  area; the Russian Secteur of the island.

Cretan Christian Insurgents 1897.

The legend on the flag reads: Enosis H Thanatos – Union (with Greece) or Death.


The fall of the tower of Voukolies

The capture by Cretan Christian insurgents supported by Greek troops, of the watch towerat Voukolies, to the west of Canea, on the night of 6/7 February 1897, while giving the insurgents a needed boost to their morale, also demonstrated the relatiive ineffectiveness of any Eurropean military response to the insurrection. While the European Powers could, and did, by virtue of their naval forces, command the littoral, once out of the range of the naval guns, there was little that could be done to support Ottoman positions. This dilema was to occur again when, in 1897, British troops occupying Candia were forced to confine their operatioins to within six miles of the town.

The fall of the Tower of Voulokies. The Cretan version

The fall of the Tower of Voukolies.

RN Kidnapping?

Towards the end of 1911 Cretan and Greek politics were in somewhat of a turmoil … plus sa change. Cretan Christians were agitating for enosis, and insisting that they be allowed to send the Christian deputies elected to the Cretan Assembly to the Greek parliament – a move which would have created a casus belli with the Ottoman Empire, and the last thing either the Cretan- born Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos or the European Powers wanted, or, in the case of the latter, were prepared to tolerate. While Venizelos was prepared, in spite of the obvious political difficulties, to bar the Cretans deputies from taking their seats in the Greek parliament, with Italy effectively at war with the Ottoman Empire following the Italian seizure of Tripoli (Libya), it was left to the three remaining Powers, Britain, France and Russia, to assure the Porte that Cretan deputies would not be allowed to leave Crete.

Accordingly, in December 1911, a group of Cretan deputies, en route for Greece, were intercepted and detained by the Powers.

The British plan, to keep them all on Malta, proved impractical when the Governor of Malta refused to take them, so they were kept on board European warships until “…On 3 January 1912, they were dumped – according to Captain Parker of H. M. S. Minerva, a ‘rather forlorn and depressed company’ – back on Cretan soil, though not before having been charged two shillings per diem for their upkeep.”[1]

Cretan delegates on board European war ship, 1911

Cretan delegates on board French war ship, 1911. Probably H. M. S. Minerva.

Cretan deputies on board European ship 1911

Cretan deputies on board European ship 1911. Probably H. M. S. Minerva.

HMS Minerva in 1895.

HMS Minerva in 1895.

In the end, it took the immanent outbreak of the First Balkan War to facilitate the entry of the Cretan Deputies into the Greek Parliament; Venizelos admitting them on 10th October 1912, War officially being declared, at least by Greece, on 18th October. *



*In an apparent attempt to keep Greece out of the War, the Ottoman Empire not only did not declare war on Greece when doing so on Bulgaria and Serbia on 17th October 1912, but also offered to abandon its claim to Crete if Greece stayed neutral…a case of too little too late.[2]


[1] Capt. Hyde Parker (Senior Naval Officer, Crete) to C-in-C Med Fleet, 16. Feb. 1912, FO371/1352. Quoted in: Holland R. and Markides D. The British and the Hellenes. Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850 – 1960. OUP. p.154.

[2] Lord Grey minute, 20 Oct. 1912, Fo371/1358. Quoted in Holland R. and Markides D. The British and the Hellenes. Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850 – 1960. OUP. p.157.


The evacuation of Kandanos, 1897

On 7th March 1897 a force consisting of 200 British sailorts and Marines, 100 French , 100 Austrian and 75 Russians, was landed  on the south west coast of Crete. Accompanied by Sir Alfred Biliotti, the  British  Consul, their task was to evacuate some 1600 Cretan Muslims and 450 Ottoman soldiers from the village of Kandanos in south west Crete, then under siege by Christian Cretans supported by Greek manned artillery. (It should be noted that the actual dates on which the events in the evacuation occurred are somewhat difficult to determine. The main source of information is Sir Alfred Biliotti who although he was present throughout, was less than clear in his dispatches; particularly when it came to putting dates in his narrative! The dates given here was obtained from various accounts, including the log of  H. M. S. Rodney; in deference to the log keeping traditions of the Royal Navy, these dates are preferred to those given by Biliotti. Similarly, the numbers of evacuees varies from account to account.) The base for the operation was the then semi-derelict village Selino Kastelli, modern Paleochora.

Selino Kastelli ( Paleochora) Gerola

Selino Kastelli c 1900-1902

En-route to Kandanos the European troops stopped overnight in the hamlet of Spaniakos and evacuated the garrison from the Ottoman fortress above the village.

Ottoman Fortress, Spaniakos

Ottoman Fortress, Spaniakos

The French troops are reported as having spent the night in a local notable’s harem; the British in the local mosque.

Spaniakos Mosque

Spaniakos Mosque.

The Spaniakos mosque was eventually destroyed after the evacuation of Cretan Muslims from the area. (Further details of the area around Spaniakos can be found here.)


Kandanos 3 April 97 ILN

British sailors leading column of refugees from Kandanos. Illustration by Melton-Prior.

For the most part the evacuation went without difficulty and the refugees arrived in Canea aboard the various European vessels. Some would stay in Canea, some went to the Turkish mainland, but few ever returned to Kandanos, and those who did were uprooted again in the 1923 population exchange.

Cretan Muslim refugees from Kandanos arriving in Canea. March 1897.

However, in the final stages, when the column reached the sea at Selino Kastelli, Cretan insurrectionists opened fire on the International troops. Given the overwhelming superiority in fire-power of the European forces, not to mention the presence of a considerable number of  European warships in the immediate vicinity, it’s not difficult to predict the outcome of the engagement.

During the operation several maps and sketches of the area were produced, apparently by French naval officers.

Area of Operations. 5th to 10th March 1897.

International troops landed at Selino Kastelli and then proceed to Kandanos via Spaniakos and Kakodiki.

Disposition of International troops Selino Kastelli, 10th March 1897.

View of the hills above Selino Kastelli and the disposition of International troops on their return from Kandanos. 10th March 1897.

The outline of the hills above the village appears to suggest that the sketch was made from a viewpoint in the south west bay.

Hills above Paleochora, February 2016.

Hills above Paleochora, February 2016. The route to Kandanos and Spaniakos is through the valley on the right hand side of the photograph.

Evidence of the use of Gras rifles, the type used by the Cretan insurgents, has been found near the site of the final encounter.

Gras bullet found in Paleochora near the site of the engagement.

Gras bullet found in Paleochora near the site of the engagement.

More details of the bullet can be found here.

Many thanks to Bob Tait for supplying the illustration of the Spaniakos mosque.

God’s revenge

On a number of occasions the European fleet opened fire on Cretan Christian insurgents. On one occasion, on 21st February 1897, shells from a Russian warship hit a Greek church, Profitis Ilias, which was near the base Cretan Christians had been using for a threatened bombardment of Canea.

Although the Russian government later paid for the rebuilding of the church, the Cretan Christian propaganda machine wasn’t slow to make the link between the ‘desecration’ of a Christian church and the, purely accidental, explosion on board the Russian battleship ‘Sissoi Veliky‘ on 15th March that year.


Greek/Cretan Christian postcard - the divine consequences of the European bombardment.

Greek/Cretan Christian postcard – the divine consequences of the European bombardment.

The caption on the postcard reads; The bombardment of Cretans on Akrotiri: The Crime and the Divine Punishment.