The Strange Story of How Greece Joined the Entente in WWI

One of the Entente's most surprising defeats in WWI came at the hands of neutral Greece. But within months, Greece entered the war alongside the Entente against the Central Powers.

May 12, 2024By Dale Pappas, PhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian Studies

how did entente greece world war i


The Western Front’s trenches or Gallipoli’s beaches dominate our impression of WWI battlefields. But in late 1916, war came to the streets of Greece’s capital, Athens. However, this was not a WWI battle between the Entente (led by Britain, France, and Russia) and Central Powers (headed by Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire). In fact, the fighting waged around the ancient monuments of Athens pitted Entente forces against Greeks opposed to Greece’s entry into the war on the Entente side. How and why did Entente forces attack a neutral city and gain a new ally in their war against the Central Powers?


Greece’s Uneasy Neutrality During WWI 

king constantine greece
King Constantine I of Greece in German Military Dress c.1910. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.


The outbreak of WWI in August 1914 added fuel to an existing rivalry between Greece’s king, Constantine I, and prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. Both leaders publicly shared credit for the country’s victories over the Ottomans and Bulgarians in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. But behind the scenes, personalities clashed and the relationship between the nationalist politician and the country’s monarch steadily deteriorated.


WWI also challenged Greece’s relations with European powers like Britain, France, and Germany. Along with Russia, Greece maintained strong cultural, economic, and political ties with these European powers. However, WWI split Greek political leaders and public opinion. Should Greece join the Entente or Central Powers? Should the country remain neutral? Ultimately, this debate would bring the country to the brink of civil war.


For Venizelos, the choice was obvious. He considered the British and French to be supportive of Greek expansion. Thus, joining the Entente offered the promise of territorial conquest that could fulfill the Greek nationalist goal of a Mediterranean empire modeled on Byzantium. A desire for Ottoman and Bulgarian land ruled out alignment with the Central Powers.

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On the other hand, King Constantine favored neutrality. As Kaiser Wilhelm’s brother-in-law, Constantine would have been inclined to support Germany had it not been for British naval superiority in the Mediterranean. Moreover, members of the king’s inner circle, like Greece’s future military dictator, Ioannis Metaxas, had strong ties to Germany but supported neutrality.


The two political rivals now led competing factions in deciding Greece’s future.


A Nation Divided 

venizelos photo
Eleftherios Venizelos. Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.


By 1915 the pro- and anti-interventionist camps settled into a cold war known as the National Schism. Competing Greek factions followed news from different fronts, like modern-day sports fans. Pro-interventionists backing Venizelos cheered Entente successes. On the other hand, anti-interventionists supporting King Constantine taunted opponents with news of Entente stalemates and defeats. But Greeks would soon be called off the sidelines and propelled into the war.


Greece’s road to involvement in WWI began with the escalation of the internal conflict between the rival political leaders. The parties reacted to military developments between the Entente and Central Powers in the Balkans. Bolstered by a new mandate in parliamentary elections, Venizelos pushed Greece closer to the Entente by offering aid to their embattled ally, Serbia.


To King Constantine’s fury, Venizelos, in September 1915, invited an Anglo-French army to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki (Salonica). As a result, Constantine unconstitutionally dismissed Venizelos and called fresh parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by supporters of the ousted prime minister.


Spring 1916 marked a turning point in Greece’s turbulent neutrality. In May, German and Bulgarian troops invaded northern Greece and seized strategic Fort Rupel. Many observers believed the invasion had to have come because of an agreement between King Constantine and German officials.


Venizelos seized the initiative. Within days, he declared a provisional government in Thessaloniki backed by several allies within the Greek military. Thus, Greece became a country split between opposing factions centered in Athens and Thessaloniki.


Neutrality Tested 

venizelos thessaloniki governement
Venizelos and loyal military officers arrive in Thessaloniki and form the Movement for National Defense. Source: Wikipedia Commons.


Venizelos enjoyed great popularity in Thessaloniki and other areas incorporated into Greece after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. He used his nationalist credentials in Thessaloniki to rally loyal forces behind his government called the Movement for National Defense. As he gathered friendly units from the Greek military, Venizelos fostered close ties with the Anglo-French army stationed in Thessaloniki.


The existence of a rival provisional government backed by an Anglo-French army put King Constantine in a difficult position. But so too had his decision to allow German and Bulgarian troops to occupy Fort Rupel and advance as far as the port city of Kavala. This brought forces belonging to the Entente and Central Powers dangerously close to neutral Greek territory. While still clinging to neutrality, King Constantine could not remain on the sidelines for long.


With an ally in Venizelos and troops based in Thessaloniki, British and French officials increased pressure on King Constantine’s government. For example, the Entente demanded Greek naval disarmament and the right to control the railway to supply troops on the Salonica Front. But negotiations stalled and tensions between Constantine and Entente officials escalated.


The November Events 

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Photo of French Vice-Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet (center) published in “Le Miroir.” Source: Wikipedia Commons.


A French diplomat did manage to get Constantine’s approval to turn over some artillery to the Entente on the Salonica Front to replace weapons lost at Fort Rupel. However, some of the king’s supporters, including Colonel Ioannis Metaxas, prepared to resist the agreement and Greek disarmament. For example, Metaxas organized reservists to join Greek troops.


Finally, in November 1916, the Entente naval commander in the Mediterranean, French Vice-Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet, prepared a military operation to ensure King Constantine agreed to Entente demands. He did not expect serious resistance as his troops seized Greek arsenals.


The French commander gained international fame the previous year for his rescue of Armenians in southeastern Anatolia. He now led 3,000 troops ashore outside Athens on December 1, 1916. However, Greece still used the Julian calendar, so the events took place in November. Hence, the 1916 battle of Athens is known in Greek as the Noemvriana or November Events.


French, British, and a small contingent of Italian troops occupied areas of Athens early that morning. Fueled by rage at rumors that pro-Venizelos Greeks guided Entente troops, inexperienced Greek reservists loyal to King Constantine likely fired the first shots of what was to be the battle to decide Greece’s future involvement in WWI.


The Battle of Athens

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French machine gunners in central Athens, Winter 1916-1917. Source: Wikipedia Commons.


Fierce fighting broke out around the Acropolis between French marines and regular Greek troops and reservists. Low on ammunition, some French troops had to surrender. Meanwhile, Italian troops withdrew. Greek forces were soon closing in on the Entente troops.


Du Fournet’s staff and about 500 Anglo-French troops came under attack by Greek machine gunners while positioned around the neoclassical exhibition hall called the Zappeion. In 1896, it hosted events at the first modern Olympic Games. Now bewildered Entente forces huddled for cover and sought a way out by negotiating with Constantine at the nearby Royal Palace (today’s Greek Parliament).


However, intense fire erupted around the Zappeion just as an understanding between Constantine and du Fournet was reached. As a result, the French admiral ordered his ships in Phaleron Bay to launch a strategic bombardment of Athens.


Soon, roughly 30-40 shells from French ships landed in central Athens. This limited display of naval power threatened ancient monuments and terrified the population. However, the shells did not inflict much physical damage on the city. One shell, though, did strike the palace, causing damage to the royal kitchen. But the barrage did help put an end to the violent day as Entente forces withdrew.


Casualty estimates vary, but both sides suffered because of the confused encounter. The French lost at least 60 killed and the British eight. Moreover, dozens of French and British had to be treated in Athenian hospitals. Greek losses are estimated at 82-100 with at least 30 killed.


Aftermath: Greece Joins Entente

world war i trench
Undated photo of a WWI trench. Source: National WWI Museum & Memorial, Kansas City


King Constantine’s motley force successfully resisted the Entente invasion of Athens. Next, they turned their anger on anyone believed to be sympathetic to Venizelos. As a result, over one hundred people lost their lives and many more were imprisoned. The Archbishop of Athens even excommunicated Venizelos at a dramatic ceremony weeks after the failed Entente invasion. According to historian LS Stavrianos, 60,000 Athenians cast a stone to curse Venizelos.


The December 6, 1916, headline in Adelaide, Australia’s newspaper The Advertiser gloomily concluded “Greeks likely to join the Germans.” However, the French response to the failed invasion soon proved the newspaper’s prediction about Greece’s choice of ally to be premature.


Indeed, while the invasion of Athens proved a fiasco, the Entente ultimately secured Greece as an ally in the war against the Central Powers. How did this happen? For starters, French officials refused to negotiate with King Constantine and demanded his abdication. Furthermore, in June 1917, French forces imposed a devastating blockade and seized areas controlled by the Athens government. Finally, Constantine agreed to leave the country, naming his son Alexander as successor to the throne.


Venizelos soon enjoyed a triumphant return to power in Athens and officially brought Greece into WWI on the Entente side.


Moreover, Greek troops played an important role in the final days of the war on the Salonica Front. But WWI would not really end for Greece in 1918. In fact, the country remained at war against Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists until 1922.

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By Dale PappasPhD Modern European History, MA History, BA History, Italian StudiesDale Pappas has taught History and Academic Writing at the high school and university levels in the United States and Europe. He holds a PhD in Modern European History from the University of Miami. Dale researches the history of tourism in the Mediterranean and the political history of Modern Greece. When he needs a breather from world travels, Dale lives between Miami, FL and Athens, Greece.