Category Archives: European Intervention Crete

Whatever happens, we have got, the Maxim gun, and they have not.*

The British battalions landing in Crete in 1897/1898 were normally equipped with two Maxim guns. Unlike later machine guns, these Maxims, the forerunners of the Vickers machine gun, were mounted on wheeled carriages. While they outclassed and out gunned anything that the Cretan Christian Insurgents had available, they were relatively difficult to move and, as the Northumberland Fusiliers found to their cost in 1898 when they lost both of theirs, difficult to land in a rough sea from a small boat.

Royal Welsh Fusiliers’ Maxim guns, Candia c.1897

The guns shown here in Candia are those of the 2/Royal Welsh Fusiliers. While the photograph is undated, given the fact that the campsite is neat and tidy and the cannonballs are nicely painted, it was probably taken during the RWF’s first tour on Crete between April 1897 and August 1898. Their return in September 1898, after the Muslim riots, was to a much less formal campsite.

 

  • Hilaire Belloc,  ‘The Modern Traveller’  1898

The Aptera Blockhouse

In spite of the failure of the Cretan Christians and their Greek allies to capture and hold Fort Malaxa, the insurgents continued to threaten the outposts of Fort Izzedin; the Ottoman fortress that dominated the entrance to Suda Bay, the main anchorage of the European Fleet.

Fort Izzedin viewed from Blockhouse. Fort Suda is across the Bay. (Photograph courtesy of Fred Rodgers.)

Austro-Hungarian Army map. Fort Izzedin and Aptera Blockhouse 1897

While realistically there was never any chance of them capturing the main fortress, the threat to it, and to the European naval forces using Suda Bay, was such that any move on Fort Izzedin was taken very seriously. Matters came to a head when in March 1897, the insurgents attempted to storm the blockhouse at Aptera, immediately above Fort Izzedin. The initial assaults were repulsed by fire from European ships

HMS Camperdown shelling insurgents above Fort Izzedin; view from HMS Revenge.

“On March 28th the insurgents made a second attempt on the Aptera blockhouse, near Fort Izzedin, which commands the entrance to Suda Bay. They were repulsed by the fire of the English, Italian and Russian warships, but resumed their attack two days later. “

A British sailor on board H. M. S. Camperdown described events in a letter to his mother:

Well last Tuesday [29th March] we heard that the Greeks were going to try and take the fort at the entrance to the harbour, The admiral sent all the small ships down to the mouth of the harbour near where the Greeks would come we also got orders to open fire. The battle started about 7pm as soon as the Greeks started firing the small ships fired shell at them it was a splendid sight to see at 8.30 we got orders to fire we fired at a distance of 4 miles the battle finished at 10pm for the night but started in the morning again at 9am we received orders to fire our heavy guns at them as well as the others our heavy guns weigh 67 tons each & throw a shell weighing 1250lbs which bursts at any distance you like from ½ mile to 15 miles we fired 4 rounds from these guns at them & a lot from the others The Greeks retreated then in the afternoon the Admirals visited the place we had shelled & they were astonished at the damage they had done they said the damage was inconceivable They couldn’t say how many were killed but it must have been a lot. We have quite a record what with sinking the Victoria & and being the only ship in the British Navy that has fired a modern heavy gun in action [1]

The Turkish garrison in the fort responded with its artillery, and the war-ships in the bay kept up a constant fire upon the besieging forces. At daylight next day the fight was resumed, but the Cretan Christians failed to storm the fort. In light of its strategic importance, the blockhouse commanded the water supply to Fort Izzedin, it was eventually determined that the outpost would be occupied by a force from the European Powers under the command of Colonel Bor, Royal Marine Artillery, who, for the purposes of this expedition, was awarded the ‘honorary’ rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Major Bor’s sketch map of Fort Izzedin and the Aptera Blockhouse. 30 March 1897.

Lt Col. Bor RMA

On 18 April at about 6p.m., Bor’s command occupied both Fort Izzedin and the Aptera blockhouse.

Austro-Hungarian and Russian troops in Fort Izzedin.

Ottoman and Russian flags over Fort Izzedin

Bor reported that he placed the Austrian and Russian contingents within the Fort, ordering them to hoist their flags to alert the insurgents to the European presence, while he went with the French and British contingents to the blockhouse; similarly hoisting their respective national flags. Both buildings apparently suffered from bad latrines and the accommodation in the blockhouse was so ‘indifferent’ that the French detachment requested, and were granted, permission to camp outside the building.

Izzedin Blockhouse February 2017 (Photograph courtesy of Fred Rodgers)

Shortly after his arrival firing broke out between Ottoman troops and insurgents to the east of the block-house, but following Bor’s instruction to the Ottomans to cease fire, the insurgents also stopped. The next morning the insurgents renewed their attack on the eastern outposts and their reinforcements could be seen advancing towards the firing line. Believing that the Cretan Christians could not see the French and British flags on the block-house from their firing line, Bor “ …marched out the French and British contingents with their flags to a conspicuous place, and, having previously sent to the Turkish outposts to cease firing, […] sounded the English ‘retire’ three times in order to attract the attention of the insurgents. They at once ceased firing and soon afterwards dispersed and went away, leaving slender guards for the rest of the day with two Greek flags which they planted along their line.”[2]  For the next few days there was little insurgent activity and the locals resumed working in their fields.

On 20th April, a group of 30 or so insurgents approached the abandoned village of Megalo Chorafia and planted a further Greek flag. No shots were fired by either side, and Bor issued strict instructions that the Ottoman and European troops were not to open fire unless a serious attack was threatened. The following day the Greek flags by the eastern outposts disappeared and more people, ‘very few of [whom] are armed’ appeared working in the fields within 1000 yards of the Ottoman lines. There were also indications that a few people were taking up residence in the Megalo Chorafia.[3]

The lull in the fighting was not to last and on 23 April Lt Col. Bor sent the following report to his superiors on H.M.S Revenge:

“…shortly before 11pm last night the insurgents commenced an attack on the eastern outposts of this position which lasted about an hour and a half and only ceased when some Krupp guns and Nordenfelts came into action from the Fort and Blockhouse. Reinforcements of uncertain strength were at this time coming down the valley as could be seen by a number of lights they were carrying but they had not come under fire when the attacking force fell back. In the meantime another, though lesser, attack had been made on the southern outposts which lasted about half an hour. At one o’clock as all appeared to be over, the garrisons of the Fort and the Blockhouse went to bed but an hour later a second and more determined attack was made on the same outposts and on two of the western outposts. The main attack this time was on the south side where the enemy closed to within 500 yds of the defence but retreated under heavy rifle fire.

On the east the attackers were crossing the river in considerable numbers when I again ordered the Krupp and Nordenfelts that side of the Blockhouse to open fire with the result that the attack fell back almost immediately.

About 2p.m. nearly all firing ceased and at 2.40 a.m. the garrison again lay down to sleep. Up to 5.30 a.m. occasional shots were exchanged between the outposts and the insurgents by which time most of the latter had got away over the hills out of sight. The total strength of the attacking force must have been at least 300 men and in this was included one company of about 40 men which appeared to be well trained and under good control as I saw it fire repeated good and well timed volleys. Two well trained buglers were also with the force.

The force in action holding the position numbered about 500 men including the Russians and Austrians in the Fort and the French and English in the Blockhouse. No casualties occurred probably owing to the fact that the outposts are very well defended by loopholed stone walls and that the bullets of the attackers were fired very high. The ammunition expended by the defence was as follows:

3 rounds from 15 cm Krupp gun

4 rounds from 6cm Krupp gun

10 from light field guns

56 from Nordenfelts

About 1800 rounds rifle ammunition.

There was a great deal of unnecessary and useless firing from the Turkish outposts which I was unable to control personally as I felt bound to remain close to the Blockhouse where the French and English were manning the battlements and which was central. At daybreak I visited all outposts and informed officers and men of the folly of wasting their ammunition.

There are no grounds for forming any opinion as to whether the attack will be renewed during the next few nights or not. But the position is quite strong enough even without the from the ships near the coast.[4]

As far as can be determined, this was the last serious attempt by the Cretan Christians to take over the Blockhouse and with the evacuation of Greek troops from Crete in May 1897, the situation quietened down.

 

[1] National Maritime Museum MS86/074 Letter dated 5 April 1897 from Fred (Blomeley?) to his grandmother describing firing on Greek attack on the Aptera outpost of Fort Izzedin. The reference to ‘sinking the Victoria’ relates to the fact that H.M.S. Camperdown had accidentally sunk the battleship H.M.S. Victoria, while on manoeuvers on 22nd June 1893.

[2] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 183, Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 20 April 1897.

[3] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 184, Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 21 April 1897.

[4] National Archives. ADM 116-92. Inclosure 192. Major Bor to Flag captain H.M.S. Revenge. 23 April 1897.

The battle for the Malaxa blockhouse.

In early 1897 one of the few lengths of properly paved road on Crete was the stretch between the then capital, Canea, and Suda Bay, the only large and safe deep water anchorage on the island. Commanding both the road, the main approach to Canea from the east, and the entrance to the harbour, was Fort Izzedin and its associated outworks.

British map of Suda Bay, April 1897.

While realistically  the Christian Cretan insurgents were never going to be able to take over the Fort Izzedin, the capture and occupation of the outlying blockhouses would put pressure on the Ottoman forces, both within the fort and in Canea. Accordingly, several attempts, some more successful than others, were made to capture these positions.

The first assault was on the Malaxa blockhouse.   An initial attack on Sunday 28th February was forced back by fire from the Ottoman iron-clad Mukaddami Khair. (In illustration of how little control the Ottoman authorities actually had over the events unfolding at that time, the Mukaddami Khair was obliged to seek, and was eventually given, the permission of the European Admirals to open fire on the insurgents. She eventually fired three shells, ‘…the first a well-directed one, which had the effect of rapidly clearing the hillsides.’[1])

The insurgents were more successful when they attacked again three weeks later.

Cretan Christians assaulting the Malaxa Blockhouse

While the illustration above is from the French magazine Le Petite Journal, the original appeared in the Illustrated London News of 10th  April 1897 with a text which reads;

“Early on the morning of March 25th a large force of Christian insurgents took up its position, with three guns, for an attack upon the Turkish blockhouse at Malaxa, a village near Canea. After prolonged artillery firing, the insurgents advanced on the blockhouse. The Turkish garrison eventually raised a white flag, and the Christians entered the blockhouse with a rush. The first of the insurgents to enter the fort was a young Cretan, Manos, who was recently an undergraduate at Oxford and is now the leader of a band of young patriots. Thanks to his intervention, the lives of most of the garrison were spared, forty-three prisoners being taken to Kontopoulo by the insurgents when their bombardment by the war-ships of the Powers obliged them to evacuate the blockhouse.”

The Illustrated London News drawing is described as being ‘[d]rawn by R. Canton Woodville R.I., from a Sketch by our Special Artist, Mr. Melton Prior’, and has Canton Woodville’s initials on the bottom left hand side and what appears to be an engraver’s mark on the bottom right. The identical illustration  published in Le Petite Journal contains no attribution to the artists.

From other contemporary reports in the Illustrated London News it would appear that in addition to the intervention a British educated insurgent, the assistance of an American journalist and a Greek Army officer were instrumental in preventing a massacre of the Ottoman defenders and facilitating the transfer of the Ottoman prisoners to the Greek Army HQ in the nearby village of Alikianos.

“When the Cretan insurgents had stormed the blockhouse of Malaxa and rushed forward to occupy the stronghold, the first men to enter the fort was the young insurgent leader, Manos, who was but latterly and undergraduate at Oxford. He was closely followed by Mr Benn an American correspondent and these two between them prevailed on the victorious forces to spare the lives of most of the garrison, and rest content with taking them prisoners. Forty-three of the Turkish soldiers were taken as prisoners to [Kastropoulo/Kontopoulo?] under fire of the war-ships of the Powers.”

Not all of the garrison were captured or killed, some managed to make their way down the steep hill-side to safety.

The fall of the Malaxa Blockhouse; The flight of Ottoman troops

In spite of having captured the Malaxa blockhouse, the insurgents were not to remain there for long. The Illustrated London News reported;

‘One heavy shell from the Combined Fleet passed through the blockhouse, demolishing one of its main walls. Some hundred shells fell around the position, doing considerable damage in the villages of Malaxa and Kontopoulo. The Christians fired the ruined blockhouse before withdrawing from this bombardment, and carried forty-three of the garrison with them as prisoners.’

European forces bombard Malaxa Blockhouse.

Again according to the Illustrated London News, below;

‘[During] the Christian attack upon the blockhouse (…..) Turkish war-ships in Suda Bay kept firing upon the attacking force at intervals throughout the fight, with the object of relieving the garrison, and after the occupation of the blockhouse the war-ships of the Powers fired upon the victorious Christians, and forced them to evacuate the now ruined stronghold.’

The fall of Malaxa blockhouse.

A handwritten note on the illustration describes the figures in the foreground as ‘Turkish troops from roofs of houses in Nerokouron. The smoke from the Malaxa  blockhouse is shown in the top right hand corner of the illustration.

The Ottoman prisoners were taken to the headquarters of the Greek invasion force at Alikianos and kept there until the evacuation of the Greek army a month or so later.

Ottoman prisoners from Malaxa.

Malaxa Insurgents

The date of the above photograph is unknown and the caption might refer simply to the location of the shot. However, it is possible that it may contain images of some of the Cretan Christians who fought at Malaxa.

 

 

 

 

[1] Command Paper No Turkey No.9, 1897. No1. Admiral Harris to Admiralty, 24 February 1897.

The French in Canea

Although for the most part based in and around Sitia, the easternmost of the four secteurs into which the Europeans divided Crete, French troops were initially involved in military action around the then capital, Canea. As with the British intervention, the first French forces were Marines, landing in March 1897.

French troops arriving at Suda Bay, 1897

Arrival of French Marines. Canea, March 1897.

French troops with mountain guns. International parade, Canea, 1897.

In one particular instance in early 1897, French troops were responsible for providing assistance to the local Ottoman forces to repel attacks by Greek troops and Cretan Christians on Fort Subachi, the fortress guarding the main source of water to Canea.

Fort Subachi/Butsunaria/Perivolia.

However, the British/ Scottish troops, had a rather low opinion of their allies as the following account from 1/Seaforth Highlanders indicates:

Monday 30 March  “ This morning an international expedition marched to Sebachi, a fort s.w. of the town and about 3 miles distant, to protect the watering place. There were, so B[ea]uman (a correspondent) informs us 5 shots fired in the air  as signals by the Insurgents – this appears to have much excited the Froggies – who with many ejaculations of [?] – Sacre Blue etc. etc. entered the fort and immediately sent an official report saying that they had been fired on – poor excitable little men, no doubt they imagined they had fought to gain an entrance – these French paraded with I should say no less than 40 lbs on each mans back, with them went wine to refresh them – and after the wine they had feather beds on which they couchied – they seem to do the thing with some idea of comfort.” [Campion]

[11 April] Last night at 6.30 p.m. the International Force at Soubaschi fired 5 shots from the 9 pdr. The fire –eating Perignon[?] who commands will someday if he irritates these fellows too much, bring Vassos about his ears – Vassos’ outposts are only about a mile away. –G.E. “

12 April “Fire –eater Perignon much in evidence on Fort Soubachi – where he delights in annoying the insurgents by firing on them, whenever he sees a man appear- We don’t want the force there to get a licking, but we should be glad to see Perignon kicked by Col. Vassos:- We are told that this excitable little Frenchman spends his days at Soubachi, penning an official tissue of lies to Amoritti, who luckily I believe does not believe all of them.”

French troops and Fort Subachi.

 

 

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.

 

Every picture tells a story…but not necessarily a true one.

Following the events of 6th September 1898 which resulted in the deaths of 14 British troops and several hundred Cretans, British justice was swift and in October and November, 17 Cretan Muslims who had been convicted of the murder of the British troops and British citizens, were publicly hanged from the walls of Candia. In spite of the barbarity of the public executions they do appear to have been conducted with some small degree of dignity. According to one eye witness, albeit writing some 25 or so years later:

Upon the wall … now rose against the clear sky of dawn a great structure on beams and planks surmounted by a box-like hut. Within the walls of the latter, invisible to the spectators, stood an executioner with an axe and block complete. Like a medieval headsman this brawny Victorian Highlander leaned upon the instrument of vengeance, grimly awaiting the signal to launch a dozen blood stained miscreants into eternity. And there the medieval parallel ended, for no victim’s neck was to be laid on the block, no blood would stain the axe. Despite the Tower Hill suggestion, justice was to be administered in strict accordance with modern ideas. Over the block was stretched a rope, the key rope of a tangle which upheld the fateful platform; and on the platform, bound, a noose round each neck, stood the first batch of murderers accountable in all for some 700 lives. In England a public execution is unthinkable; as an example to the fanatical hordes of the East it is often imperative for the common safety.  The gallows was of a design set up on the highest point of the city where none could fail to see it. Grimly impressive to spectators standing aloof on ships’ decks, the scene must have daunted guilty onlookers within the city walls. The row of doomed sinners silhouetted against the sky, the wailing of the Moslem women, the poignant notes of the “Last Post,” all in sharp contrast with the brilliance of the morning, I see and hear them again as though it were yesterday.

Hark! The clarion call of the bugle, clear and resonant on the morning air. So pregnant with doom are its two ascending notes that even the wailing of the women is momentarily hushed in an awe stricken silence.

“Lights out!” Save perhaps the stroke of the avenging axe it is the last sound heard by the ragged morituri ere they drop into the unknown.[1]

The photographs below show the preparation for one of the three public executions carried out by the British, the lower photograph showing the bottom of the ‘box-like hut’ on top of the scaffold.

Preparations for the execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898.

Preparations for the execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898.

The execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898.

The execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898.

While the photographs, and a number of British magazine illustrations, give what one can assume is a fairly accurate impression of these particular events, the need for accuracy didn’t seem to apply to the reportage in at least one Italian magazine.

Italian view of the the execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898. La Domenica del Corriere

Italian view of the the execution of rioters involved in the murder of British troops or citizens. Candia 1898. La Domenica del Corriere

That the British are displayed as acting in a particularly brutal manner is, on the face of it, surprising given that there appears to have been little or no friction between Italian and British troops on Crete, unlike the relationship between French and Italians. The explanation is related rather to the geo-political aspirations of certain parts of the Italian press and polity. Although only finally united as a nation-state since 1870, there was a distinct Italian movement seeking the creation of an Italian Empire and expansion into Ottoman controlled territories bordering the Mediterranean, a movement which would in time result in the Italian-Ottoman War of 1911/12 and Italian occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese. Back in the 1890s though, parts of the Italian press were clearly supportive of the Cretan Christian insurgents – as their illustrations of the supposed events in Crete showed – which makes the anti-British illustration showing some sympathy for the Cretan Muslims, all the more unusual.

Surpression of gendarmerie mutiny. llustrata della domenica. 14th March-1897

Supression of gendarmerie mutiny. llustrata della domenica. 14th March-1897

For the record; the firing during the mutiny of the Gendarmerie took place inside the building, one Italian seaman was wounded.

Italian view of conference with Colonel Vassos. La Tribuna Illustrata 28 March1897

Italian view of conference with Colonel Vassos. La Tribuna Illustrata 28 March1897

For the record; In spite of the apparent warmth with which the Admirals are greeting Colonel Vassos, the purpose of the meeting was to deliver an ultimatum to Vassos to withdraw his men from Crete or to face the consequences.

Italian view of hand to hand combat in Crete 1897. La Tribuna Illustrata 28 December 1897

Italian view of hand to hand combat in Crete 1897. La Tribuna Illustrata 28 December 1897

For the record; Few, if any encounters between Cretan Christian insurgents and Ottoman regulars are recorded as involving involved close quarter fighting; mostly it was a case of the insurgents opening long distance fire on the regulars, be they Ottoman or later, British.

Garibaldians in Candia. La Tribuna Illustrate Della Domenica 11th April 1897

Garibaldians in Candia.
La Tribuna Illustrate Della Domenica 11th April 1897

For the record; While there were rumours that a small number of ‘Garabaldians’ had gone to Crete to fight for the Cretan Christians, there is no apparent record of them taking part in any action, let alone getting involved in the conflict under an Italian flag.

 

 

Footnote: The photographs of the executions were taken by a commercial photographer R. Behaeddin, turned into postcards and subsequently sold to British soldiers. While it could be expected that these macabre souvenirs would be bought by those there at the time of the executions in 1898, they were still in circulation among British troops as late as 1906/07, one being bought by a member of 2/Royal Sussex while serving in Crete at that time.

[1] W.P.Drury.  In many Parts. Memoirs of a Marine. T.Fisher Unwin Ltd. London. 1926. p.181

Christmas in Crete

The 1/Inniskilling Fusiliers spent the Christmas of 1907 in Crete. In the midst of their other duties, one of the battalion at least managed to find the time to send home an appropriate Christmas card.

The 1/Inniskillings' Christmas card, Crete 1907

The 1/Inniskillings’ Christmas card, Crete 1907

One of them at least had some idea of the climatic conditions awaiting them over that Christmas. A member of the battalion named Sid, referred to in previous posts, purchased a commercially produced postcard, apparently taken in 1906 or earlier, which, according to his annotation, shows snow on the Officers’ Mess in Candia.

British Officers' mess in Candia in the winter.c.1906

British Officers’ mess in Candia in the winter.c.1906

According to The Army Medical Department report for 1907,[1] the huts used as accommodation for the men in Candia were ”commodious and fairly comfortable, but in some cases falling into disrepair.”  The Officers’ huts were no better, being “…mostly old, badly constructed, and afford[ing] scanty accommodation, most of the rooms[…] not provided with stoves, and some of the junior officers hav[ing] to occupy EP [Enlisted Personnel] tents through the greater part of the year. “

The class distinction between officers and men was brought out well in the report: “ The detachment at Canea, consisting of 3 officers and 55 to 65 men, is somewhat better accommodated [than those in Candia] in three houses, of which that occupied by the officers is well situated and arranged. The two houses occupied by the men seem to offer hardly enough accommodation for the large number above stated, and it is considered by the Senior Medical Officer that the detachment should be kept constantly at 50.”

[1] 1908[Cd.4057] Army Medical Department report for the year 1907. Vol. XLIX p.60.