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.
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. )
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:
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.
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.
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.