The Greek War
Before ever South America had won her independence, another country had felt the tyranny of oppression, and had already begun to struggle into the fuller air of freedom. That country was Greece—the land of Homer and Socrates—the land of Marathon and Thermopylæ. Greece had been subject to Rome, till Constantine built a new Rome and Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Empire. Under this Byzantine Empire, Greece had remained, till the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. Under Turkish rule the Greeks had suffered deeply, and that nation, once so famous in Europe, now lay paralysed under its Mohammedan oppressors.
When the Greek revolution began, in 1821, it was no sudden insurrection to which the people were stung. As a tree, which winter has stripped of its leaves, puts forth fresh growth in the spring, so the time had come, when the long winter of Turkish oppression must pass and spring must dawn. The War of Independence in North and South America, and the outburst of suppressed France, gave the Greeks courage to arise and assert their newly recognised strength.
In the opening scenes of the insurrection, the barbarity of Greek and Turks was perhaps on a level. The Greeks revenged themselves as fiercely as a slave, who had broken his fetters: the Turks resorted to wholesale massacre. Europe could not watch a struggle, so heroic, so prolonged, so full of tragedy, without being strangely moved. British volunteers, among them Lord Cochrane of Chilian fame, and Byron the poet, lent their services to the cause of Greek freedom. Byron still dreamt of a Greece, on whose free soil the arts and sciences should once more flourish in their ancient glory. At the moment of his arrival, in 1823, Greece was split up into parties. She had no leader, and things were going badly for her. Mesolonghi, one of the strongholds of western Greece, was besieged by the Turks. They stood at the entrance of the Gulf of Patras, in a plain stretching away from the sea-coast to the mountains. Much of the country was little better than a swamp, inhabited by fishermen. Byron's arrival here was hailed with enthusiasm. Crowds of citizens gathered on the beach to receive him, and shouts arose as he stepped ashore in a scarlet uniform. It was January 1824. His very presence gave them encouragement. His interest in them was very real, and it is likely he would have done much. But Mesolonghi was a bed of fever, and four months after his arrival, Byron died in the midst of the Greeks he had come to serve.
"I have given Greece my time, my means, my health; and now I give her my life!" he cried almost with his dying breath.
Perhaps his death—in the glorious attempt to restore Greece to her ancient freedom and renown—served Greece better than his life could ever have done. All the Greek patriotism seemed now to be corked up within the walls of Mesolonghi, where an undisciplined population did the duty of a trained garrison, and warm-hearted peasants the work of a trained army. The Turkish commander had invested the city by land and sea, but the Greek garrison had a good supply of food within, and moreover a Greek fleet was known to be on its way with supplies. One July morning at early dawn the Greeks saw the distant sea covered with vessels. Their joy was boundless. It was their fleet, and it would enable them to defeat the Turks. But suddenly the red flag of Turkey became visible to their straining eyes, and they discovered it was thirty-nine ships of war to block their port, and no Greek ships. Soon after this, came six Turkish chiefs to offer terms. The Greeks were indignant. With one voice they cried, in a spirit worthy of the Spartans of old, "War!"
The summer passed. Famine threatened the city. A few old Greek chiefs were in favour of treating.
"What, old men," cried the garrison, "do you hold life so dear at your age, when we, in the flower of youth, would give it up? If the men of Mesolonghi cannot defend their walls, they will defend their liberty. There shall be no capitulation as long as one of us remains alive. The Turkish standard shall not fly in Mesolonghi, till it has been carried over our dead bodies."
Still the Greek fleet did not come. It alone could save the brave defenders.
Meanwhile the Sultan of Turkey grew furious with his commander. "I will have Mesolonghi or your head," he cried.
The tardy arrival of the Greek fleet brought joy to the defenders, and alarm spread through the ranks of the Turks. The Sultan now called in the Egyptian army under Ibraham. The Egyptians came on, boasting that they would make short work of Mesolonghi, but when they met the Greeks hand-to-hand, they were thoroughly defeated.
Still the spirit of Greek heroism, rare in the Greek revolution, rare even in the history of mankind, kept the flag flying over Mesolonghi.
Then Ibraham ordered a fleet of flat-bottomed boats to be built, and launched upon the lagoons between the city and the open sea. Mesolonghi was thus completely surrounded.
The siege had lasted a year. The food was exhausted, the last charge of powder had been fired, when the Greeks—men, women, and children—joined in one last reckless, heroic assault, and perished, fighting their way through the Turkish lines.
Their splendid defence had achieved its end. The powers of Europe could no longer hold aloof. England, France, and Russia agreed to send help. In 1827 a combined fleet under an English sailor, Sir Edward Codrington, appeared in Greek waters. Codrington was one of Nelson's school, and had commanded a ship at the battle of Trafalgar.
The combined fleets of Turkey and Egypt—a great armament of sixty-five sail—lay in the Bay of Navarino. They formed a huge crescent in the mouth of the bay, with fire-ships at either end. On the afternoon of October 20, the English Admiral, on board a stately wooden three-decker, sailed into the bay. He was followed by the French and Russians. He did not mean to fight. But suddenly one of the fire-ships discharged a volley into an English ship, whose commander fired back. Soon a deep roar resounded through the crescent. The battle of Navarino had begun. For four hours it raged. Codrington poured a very tempest of fire into the Turkish flag-ship, until she drifted away, a total wreck, having lost 650 men out of a crew of 850. Then he turned to the Egyptian flag-ship, and ten minutes later she too was a wreck. When evening fell, most of the Turkish and Egyptian ships were in flames. All through the night, the hills round Navarino shone with the light of burning ships. When morning dawned, what remained of the crescent of ships had vanished.
The allied fleets had saved Greece. It was some years yet, before Greece finally won her independence. There was more fighting to be done by land and sea. But at last in the year 1833, young Otho of Bavaria landed in Greece, to be crowned amid the shouts of the people, as their first King.