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September 1, 2022

Though most people know that Prince Philip was born in Greece and almost immediately exiled, the precise circumstances of this leaving of his native country are surprisingly obscure. How many are aware, for example, that if Ataturk had lost the 1921 Battle of the Sakarya River, outside Ankara, not only would modern Turkey not exist, but neither would Princes Charles, William and Harry? 

The existence of our future kings is the chance product of the tumult accompanying the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It is a dramatic illustration of the Butterfly Effect, whereby random events on one corner of the European continent totally reshaped timelines on the other: indeed, we could declare the prime mover in the events that placed the Duke of Edinburgh as our Queen’s consort to be an aggrieved Greek monkey.

On 2 October, 1920, Prince Philip’s uncle, King Alexander of Greece, was taking the air in the grounds of the royal palace of Tatoi, outside Athens. His German Shepherd dog, Fritz, attacked a Barbary Macaque belonging to a member of his staff. As the King rushed to extract the screaming monkey from Fritz’s jaws, the macaque’s furious mate sunk its teeth into the king’s leg. Alexander contracted sepsis, and died just over three weeks later, throwing Greece into a succession crisis, and totally reordering the subsequent history of the Near East. As Churchill later wrote, “it is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite”.

King Alexander’s septic leg, like the rest of the Greek royal family, possessed not a drop of Hellenic blood — something Prince Philip reportedly made clear to a Greek visitor to Buckingham Palace who dared to claim ethnic kinship with his host. Back when the small Balkan nation finally won its independence from the Ottoman Empire, in 1831, the European Great Powers had decided on the Bavarian Wittelsbach dynasty to rule the poor and volatile Greeks. When the Wittelsbach King Otto was forced from his throne by the revolution of 1862, the Great Powers reconvened, and chose the 17-year old Prince William of Denmark, Prince Philip’s grandfather, as Greece’s new king. As he would later instruct his children, “You must never forget that you are foreigners in this country, but you must make them [the Greeks] forget it.” 

Retaining his markedly un-Hellenic surname of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Glücksberg (to this day, the Hellenic Republic refers to his deposed descendent ex-King Constantine II as Citizen Glücksberg), Prince William adopted the regal name of George I, King of the Hellenes. 

This styling was significant: where the luckless King Otto merely styled himself King of Greece, George’s title expressed a desire to expand his little kingdom’s reach to encompass the still unliberated Greeks of the Ottoman Empire, who outnumbered the population of Greece itself. 

In this, his reign was markedly successful: first, Greece was granted the Ionian Islands, including Prince Philip’s birthplace of Corfu, as a coronation gift by Britain. Then, following the unsuccessful 1897 war against Turkey, Greece was nevertheless awarded the rich farmlands of Thessaly and Central Greece by the Great Powers. Most dramatically, under the inspired generalship of King George’s eldest son, Constantine, Greece doubled its territory by conquest in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, winning control of the wild and ethnically-mixed Balkan provinces of Epirus, Macedonia and Western Thrace (my own great-grandfather, a Corfiot army officer, met and married my great-grandmother, a peasant girl from Epirus, while taking part in Constantine’s successful campaign). 

The Greek monarchy won unprecedented acclaim from its people following that succession of victories against the vastly superior Ottoman armies. It came as a great shock, then, when King George was gunned down during a stroll through the newly-liberated port city of Thessaloniki by a Greek, Alexandros Schinas, variously described as either a socialist or a lunatic (his subsequent fatal flight from a 30-ft window during detention unfortunately leaves his true motivation a matter of debate).

When George’s eldest son, Prince Philip’s uncle, assumed the throne as King Constantine I in 1913, it was as the victorious commander of the First Balkan War as well as Greece’s first Greek-born king. Immensely popular, Constantine won further accolades for his generalship of the Greek armies in the Second Balkan War against Bulgaria, which broke out a few short months after his accession. Annointed Conqueror of the Bulgarians, awarded the rank of Field Marshal by his premier, the liberal Cretan statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, Constantine had reached the summit of his career. 

The outbreak of World War I a year later would quite literally split Greece in two, and set in train the events that would lead Greece to catastrophe and the infant Prince Philip on his path to Britishness.

Educated in Germany, and married to Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sister Sophie of Prussia, King Constantine had no desire to lead a Greece exhausted by two years of war into a greater European conflict, regardless of Britain’s offer of Cyprus as an inducement. Venizelos, however, saw the war as an opportunity for further Greek expansion into the Balkans and Asia Minor; he intrigued with the Allies to effect Greece’s entrance into the conflict. When the premier allowed British and French forces to land in Thessaloniki to establish the Macedonian front against Entente forces, it enraged Constantine, and escalated the National Schism between liberal and monarchist elements in Greek politics to previously unimaginable heights. 

In 1916, Venizelist officers in Thessaloniki mounted a coup to commit their forces to the Allied cause; in Athens, a Franco-British landing to force the King to enter the war on the Allied side was defeated by Greek royalist volunteers. French public opinion would never forgive Constantine for the death of French marines in this brief engagement. As Churchill would later remark, Constantine became “a bugbear second only to the Kaiser himself in the eyes of the British and French people”, a fact that would have tragic repercussions for Greece.

In June 1917, following an Allied naval blockade of Greece and the seizure of the Greek Navy, the French landed troops in Thessaly and forced Constantine to abdicate the throne in favour of his son Alexander. Greece entered the war on the Allied side, fighting doggedly against German, Bulgarian and Austrian forces on the Macedonian front, and winning the country the approval of the Allies once again. 

Through Venizelos’s expert diplomacy, Greece was awarded a share of the Ottoman Empire in the peace conferences that followed the war’s conclusion. Greek troops entered Eastern Thrace, raising the Greek flag over the historic city of Adrianople, even as Greek forces landed in the ancient port city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, home to a Greek ethnic majority. The Greek battleship Averoff sailed through the Bosphorus to Constantinople, the lost Byzantine capital now bedecked with Greek flags under Allied occupation: it seemed that the Greek Megali Idea, of the uniting of the Greek people in a rich and powerful nation of “two continents and five seas,” had finally come true. 

Then that random monkey bite changed everything.

In a plebiscite on who would replace the luckless King Alexander, the Greek people overwhelmingly chose his exiled father Constantine, hero of the Balkan Wars, to the horror of both Venizelos and the Allies. Constantine returned home, exiling Venizelos in turn, and took over command of the Asia Minor campaign. The Turkish nationalist forces under Ataturk, fighting the Italians in Southwest Turkey, the French in the south and east and the Greeks in the west, had withdrawn into the country’s deep interior, settling on the ramshackle village of Ankara as their revolutionary capital. 

Winning battle after battle against the Turks without ever landing a decisive blow, Constantine’s forces pressed on into the country’s waterless interior in the pursuit of total victory. The king was unimpressed with the new lands he had won, and the squalid villages his men passed through. “It is extraordinary how little civilized the Turks are,” he wrote home, “it is high time they disappeared once more and went back into the interior of Asia whence they came.” Had he won his war, an independent Kurdistan as well as an Anatolian Armenian state would likely have accompanied the Greek victory, and modern Turkey would not exist.

Among King Constantine’s generals was his younger brother Prince Andrew, Prince Philip’s father, a career cavalry officer who had been appointed command of Greece’s II Army Corps. Andrew was the “most Greek” of the Glucksberg dynasty: as a child, he made a conscious choice to speak only Greek where his relatives conversed with each other in German and English. A sickly infant, he had grown up in the ramshackle Athens palace built for King Otto (today Greece’s parliament), even contracting typhoid from its single squalid bathroom. 

Prince Andrew, Philip’s father, with his wife, Princess Alice, in Athens, January 1921. Credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

As he marched his forces across Anatolia’s Great Salt Desert, omens of impending doom flit across his mind. He had no great affection for the Asia Minor Greeks of republican sympathies for whom he was fighting, once writing that “the people here are generally disgusting. A swollen Venizelism prevails… It would really be worth handing over Smyrna to Kemal [Ataturk] so as to kick all these worthless characters who behave like this after we have poured out such terrible blood here… My God, when shall I get away from this hell here?” Andrew’s death in battle outside Bursa had already been erroneously announced in the world press. 

Back in Corfu, at his home of Mon Repos, a Regency villa built for the island’s former British governor which could have been lifted straight from Bath or Cheltenham, his Anglo-German wife Princess Alice of Battenberg gave birth on the kitchen table to a son, Philippos

But here in the depths of Anatolia, the Greek high command, split between officers of royalist and Venizelist sympathies, was internally divided. The Army’s supply lines were dangerously over-extended, and its baggage train was harried by Turkish cavalry along the long route to Ankara. “There are still some villages where dangerous fanaticism still reigns, and then the Turks go out by night and massacre, in the most atrocious manner, our men or the lorry drivers who happen to be isolated,” Constantine had written home. “They mutilate them or even skin them, which enrages our soldiers to such an extent as to give rise to disagreeable reprisals. The war is developing into wild fighting, and that is the reason why we have so few prisoners — they are all massacred on the spot.” Some Greek sources note that Prince Andrew was given the epithet of “hut burner” by his men for his treatment of the Turkish villages along his path.

At the winding Sakarya river, some 35 miles outside Ankara, the Greek and Turkish forces readied themselves for the decisive battle of the war. The Greek inability to decisively defeat Ataturk’s forces, along with Constantine’s return to the throne, had caused the British and French attachment to Greece’s cause to wane dangerously. For Greece to retain Lloyd-George’s support against what Churchill described as the “pro-Turk bias” of the British Conservative Party, Foriegn Office and military establishment, Constantine would need a decisive victory at the Sakarya. Unfortunately for the Greek people and its royal family, he did not win one.

After three weeks of bitter fighting along a 60-mile front, in a battle which could at any point have gone either way, the Greek general Anastasios Papoulas disengaged his forces and began the retreat westward. The bodies of thousands of men on both sides littered the field of battle. Ataturk had won a famous victory, regarded now as the moment which led to the birth of the modern Turkish state. Years later, the Turkish General and future president Ismet Inönü remarked of Sakarya that Papoulas was too nervy to be an effective commander: “Papoulas avoided disaster. But he never won a battle,” he would later write. 

Papoulas saw things differently. He lay the blame for the defeat directly on Prince Andrew, who had refused a direct order to commit his II Army Corps to the fray at one of the battle’s decisive moments.

Prince Andrew requested to be relieved of his command position, and was refused, though his chief of staff was sacked. Papoulas was replaced with the mentally unstable general Georgios Hatzianestis, who was too preoccupied with the delusion that his legs were made of glass to command effectively. Back in Smyrna, Andrew would write presciently of the darkening situation that something must be done quickly to remove us from the nightmare of Asia Minor… we must stop bluffing and face the situation as it really is. Because finally which is better? – to fall into the sea or escape before we are ducked?”

Permitted three months leave, Andrew finally returned to his wife in Corfu and held his newborn son Philippos for the first time. After nearly a year of stalemate in the trenches west of Ankara, during which time Greece’s Western allies abandoned their support of the Greek cause and began treating with Ataturk, the Turks launched an offensive that would see the Greek forces fly in headlong retreat towards the Aegean. Greeks call the result, simply, “the Catastrophe.” When the victorious Turkish forces reached Smyrna, the city and its predominantly Greek inhabitants were put to fire and sword, leading to the flight of 1.6 million Christian refugees to Greece and all but ending a 3,000-year Greek presence in Asia Minor. 

In Athens, a military coup unseated King Constantine, restoring Venizelos to negotiate the Treaty of Lausanne which established the modern borders of Greece and Turkey. As Constantine abdicated, the revolutionary government arrested six of the royalist generals and politicians blamed for the defeat, and sent troops to Corfu to arrest Prince Andrew and bring him to Athens for trial. He was accused of disobeying a direct order to attack, and abandoning his position in the face of the enemy “with disastrous results not only to the corps under his command but to the entire army”. 

After a brief trial, the unlucky six were sentenced to death by firing squad, positioned at the edge of a hastily dug pit and shot without blindfolds. A 2010 court case would later overturn their convictions for treason. Prince Andrew’s trial began two days later. The revolutionary general Theodoros Pangalos, Andrew’s contemporary at the Hellenic Military Academy and briefly the country’s future dictator, visited him in detention. “How many children have you?” he asked, nodding when Andrew answered. “Poor things,” he replied, “what a pity they will soon be orphans!”

As the historian Michael Llewellyn-Smith noted in his excellent book on Greece’s Asia Minor campaign Ionian Vision, “whether or not Andrew had been guilty of insubordination, it was an absurd charge to bring fifteen months after the event, given that he had not been relieved of his command at the time.” On 3 December, Andrew took the stand. A staff officer, Colonel Kalogeras, stated that Andrew had refused to attack despite direct orders. Colonel Sariyannis and General Papoulas both attested that if Andrew had carried out Papoulas’ orders, the Greeks would have won the day at Sakarya. Andrew was unanimously found guilty of disobedience and abandoning his post and sentenced to be stripped of his rank and banished permanently from Greece. 

Andrew expected to be executed in his cell at any moment. However, in the background, the Greek revolutionary General Nikaloaos Plastiras, a future three-time Prime Minister of Greece, had been negotiating with the British government, which had broken off formal diplomatic relations with Greece since the execution of the Six. They agreed that Andrew would be permitted to leave Greece on a British warship.

And so, a few months after his birth, Prince Philippos of Greece left Mon Repos, Corfu and Greece on the British destroyer HMS Calypso, along with his mother and father and into a life of exile. Philippos was, famously, carried onto the warship in an orange crate instead of a cot. His father Prince Andrew settled into a life of exile in France, writing a book Towards Disaster, translated by Philip’s mother Princess Alice, which aimed to justify his actions at Sakarya as necessary to avoid a pointless loss of life in a losing battle. When the monarchy was restored in Greece, Andrew refused a commission for Philip in the Hellenic Navy, saying “‘Never the Greek Navy! In the Greek Navy after a bit they would throw him out – that’s what they did to me, not once, as you know, or twice, but three times!’” 

Instead, Philip served gallantly in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and was awarded the Greek War Cross for his actions at Cape Matapan. While his son Prince Charles became a benefactor of the Greek monastic republic of Mount Athos and frequent visitor to Corfu, and who is widely considered to be a Phillhellene with a strong mystical attachment to the Greek Orthodox faith of his grandparents, Prince Philip described himself as a discredited Balkan prince of no particular merit or distinction”. For despite his nickname as “Phil the Greek”, he felt no great affection for the country and the uneasy crown it offered its foreign rulers. As he once said of the land of his birth and the mercurial people it contains, “I certainly never felt nostalgic about Greece. A grandfather assassinated and a father condemned to death does not endear me to the perpetrators.”

This piece was originally published in April.

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