Greek-Cypriots and Enosis with Greece 1915 and 1919
Cyprus is a beautiful island which occupies an important strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and Middle East. The Greek Cypriots wanted union with Greece with Britain willing to cede the island so long as Athens went to the assistance of Serbia in October 1915. The offer lapsed with Greek Premier Zaimis carrying out King Constantine’s neutral foreign policy. In early 1919, Greek-Cypriot fortunes for enosis revived once again and only to be dashed by the British government’s refusal to cede Cyprus to Greece.
1 The offer of Cyprus to Greece October 1915
When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers: Germany and Austro-Hungary in October 1914, Great Britain annexed Cyprus which became a British colony. With the British war effort bogged down on the Western front and at Gallipoli, she looked towards opening up a new front in the Balkans. Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos invited Anglo-French troops to land in Salonika in early October 1915 to go to the assistance of Serbia. Venizelos was very keen for Greece to join the Entente powers: Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy. This action brought Venizelos into direct conflict with King Constantine who dismissed him from office. Alexander Zaimis was appointed Prime Minister to oversee King Constantine’s neutral foreign policy.
Britain offered Cyprus to Greece in October on the condition that she went to the assistance of Serbia. Under the terms of the Greek-Serbian Treaty of 1913, Greece was obliged to aid her ally against a Bulgarian attack. King Constantine refused to come to Serbia's aid "claiming that the Treaty did not apply to a war in which Serbia was not only attacked by Bulgaria but a Great Power (Germany)". Zaimis consulted with the King and his cabinet colleagues before officially responding to the British offer. His response was that Greece wished to maintain its neutrality and even the offer of Cyprus did not offer her many advantages either. The Greek-Cypriots were greatly disappointed to learn of the Greek Government’s refusal to accept the British offer. There was nothing they could do in the present circumstances because of the war. It was also hoped that Britain would cede Cyprus to Greece in the future which would make enosis a reality. Unfortunately Cyprus was divided along Venizelist and Constantinist lines thus relegating any notions of enosis into the background.
The abdication of King Constantine in June 1917 signaled the return of Venizelos to power who immediately entered the war on the side of the Entente. For many Greek- Cypriots, the armistice of Mudros signed on October 30, 1918 offered the hope that the issue of enosis might be taken up by Eleftherios Venizelos at the forthcoming Paris Peace Conference. In order to bolster their position for enosis, a Greek-Cypriot delegation headed by Archbishop Kyrillos 111 visited London and Paris.
2. Paris Peace Conference 1919
Two British diplomats Harold Nicolson and Eyre Crowe attached to the British peace delegation in Paris discussed the future of Cyprus in January 1919. Nicolson noted in his diary that Crowe was “cantankerous about Cyprus” and would not even allow him to outline his concerns. Nicolson stated that Britain had acquired the island “by a trick as disreputable as that which the Italians collared the Dodecanese” and was “no use to us strategically or economically.” He further argued that Britain could not claim the high moral ground by retaining Cyprus and exhibiting “moral indignation at the Italians retaining Rhodes?” The Greek-Cypriots had the right to seek union with Greece for which Crowe described Nicolson’s position as “nonsense…and not being clear-headed.”
On February 3, Venizelos outlined Greece’s territorial claims before the Council of Ten (British Empire, US, France, Italy and Japan). On Cyprus, he stated:
It might be asked why no specific claim had been put forward to the island of Cyprus. He had not done so for various reasons, the most important of these being that he was convinced that the British Government …would at the end of war be sufficiently magnanimous to surrender Cyprus to Greece.
Venizelos believed that Britain would make a gesture of surrendering the island to Greece but his idea was one borne out of hope rather than insistence. On the other hand, Venizelos was more interested in achieving his nation’s territorial gains in Asia Minor, Northern Epirus, Thrace, the Dodecanese, Imbros, Tenedos, Kastelorizo and Rhodes. George Georghallides succinctly describes Venizelos’ ambivalence over Cyprus that “the main task of Greece was to liberate the bulk of the long-suffering Greek communities living in near Asia Minor coast and in Thrace and to consolidate the Greek occupation of the Greek islands.”
The Cypriot delegation visited London in the hope of convincing British officials of their desire to be united with Greece. On February 5, 1919 the Times of London reported that the Cypriot delegation met with the Colonial Secretary, Lord Milner to discuss the future of Cyprus. During the meeting Milner stated that he knew very little about Cyprus but understood the island’s historical importance. He appreciated the aspirations of the Cypriots for union with Greece but would consider their case. The British Foreign Office made it very clear to the Cypriot deputation that “we do not intend to cede Cyprus to Greece and nothing is to be gained by pretending that we do.” Milner’s response appears somewhat insincere whereas the Foreign Office had made its decision of keeping the island under British control.
3. Another appeal for enosis
On July 21, 1919 the Cyprus delegation’s letter was published in the Times where they continued to argue for union with Greece. They appreciated the benefits of British administration but the Cypriots demanded enosis with Greece based on ‘strong ties of blood…their language and religion.” The Cypriots argued that their island was not as important strategically as the British might have thought. Any future British interest in Cyprus could easily be concluded between Greece and Britain. The Muslim minority would have its rights fully respected and would have nothing to fear from a Greek administration. Examples were cited of their co-religionists in Crete, Thessaly and Macedonia who enjoyed the benefits and privileges of Greek citizenship where they were employed in the Greek civil service, they also elected mayors and “deputies to the Chamber.” However the Turkish Cypriots were content with British rule and did not desire to be placed under Greek rule.
The British remained unmoved by the Cypriots call for union with Greece and put forward a number of proposals to justify its retention of the island in October 1919. A British Admiralty memorandum argued that Cyprus occupied an important strategic position which was close to the ports of Port Said, Haifa, Mersina, Alexandretta, Adalia and Beirut which could easily be patrolled by the Britsh planes. Whilst lacking natural harbors, Famagusta situated on the east coast had the prospect of becoming an excellent base for submarines and destroyers. An airbase could easily be constructed at Famagusta for the Royal Airforce.
The Admiralty outlined additional reasons for retaining Cyprus as it possessed minerals (copper, gypsum, copper sulphate and asbestos), grains (wheat and barley), potatoes, and timber which was largely untapped compared to Asia Minor and Syria where forests had been destroyed by wasteful practices. Cyprus was largely self-sufficient which also supplied food and timber to the British army who fought in the Middle East. The Air Ministry concurred with the views of the Admiralty.
The British Government was concerned that should Cyprus fall into the hands of a hostile power, then its position in Egypt and Suez Canal would be under threat. They considered Greece a weak power who possibly might not be able to defend Cyprus in a time of conflict. Furthermore Britain kept a close eye on Italian naval ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, Britain could not cede Cyprus to a third party without the consent of France.
The proposed British cession of Cyprus to Greece was a hasty decision made under the exigencies of the First World War. Britain was not prepared to part with this important strategic island which played a prominent role in her imperial communications in the Eastern Mediterranean .Unfortunately the aspirations of the Greek-Cypriots for enosis were dashed by both Venizelos and the British Government.