Constantine I of Greece
gigatos | October 23, 2021
Constantine I of Greece (in modern Greek: Κωνσταντίνος Αʹ της Ελλάδας Konstantínos I tis Elládas) or, sometimes, Constantine XII, was born on August 2, 1868, in Athens, Greece and died on January 11, 1923, in Palermo, Italy. Belonging to the house of Glücksburg, he was the third sovereign of modern Greece and reigned from 1913 to 1917, then from 1920 to 1922, with the title of king of Hellenes.
The first heir to the throne born in Greece, Constantine underwent military training at a very young age, first in his country and then in Germany, which led him to hold important positions in the Greek army. In 1897, he was commander-in-chief during the first Greek-Turkish war and it is largely to him that the Greek public opinion imputes the bitter national defeat. Having become very unpopular within the army, Constantine had to resign from his duties following the “Goudi coup” of 1909 and leave Greece for some time. Despite everything, his exile was temporary and the diadoch was reinstated as commander-in-chief by Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos in 1911. After having reorganized the army, the crown prince led, in 1912-1913, the forces of his country during the two Balkan wars and participated in the conquest of Thessalonica, Macedonia and part of Epirus. While the Hellenic kingdom saw its surface and its population double, King George I was assassinated on March 18, 1913, and Constantine succeeded him on the throne.
During the First World War, tensions erupted between Constantine I and his Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos over Greece”s entry into the conflict alongside the Triple Entente. In 1915, the king forced Venizelos to resign from his position, which triggered the “National Schism”. Finally, Constantine I had to leave power in 1917, after the Allied forces threatened to bomb Athens. He left the throne to his second son, Alexander I, and then moved to Switzerland with his wife and their other children. But, after the unexpected death of the young king, the defeat of Venizélos in the legislative elections of 1920 and a plebiscite brought Constantine back to power. However, the military failure of Greece against Turkey in 1919-1922 led the sovereign to abdicate permanently in 1922 and to leave for exile in Italy, where he died a few months later. His eldest son, George II, succeeded him briefly before renouncing the crown in his turn.
Constantine I was the eldest son of King George I of Greece (1845-1913) and his wife Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia (1851-1926). By his father, he is the grandson of King Christian IX of Denmark (1818-1906), nicknamed the “Father-in-law of Europe”, while by his mother, he is a descendant of Grand Duke Constantine Nikolayevich of Russia (1827-1892) and his wife Princess Alexandra of Saxony-Altenburg (1830-1911).
Through Queen Olga, Constantine is also a distant descendant of the Byzantine Emperor Alexis III Angel (1195-1203) and his wife Empress Euphrosyne Doukaina Kamatera (c. 1155-1211).
On October 27, 1889, Constantine married Princess Sophie of Prussia (1870-1932) in Athens. She was the daughter of Emperor Frederick III of Germany (1831-1888) and his wife, Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom (1840-1901). Through her mother, Sophie is therefore a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom (1819-1901), nicknamed the “Grandmother of Europe”.
From the union of Constantine and Sophie were born six children:
Born only ten months after the marriage of his parents, the prince has the distinction of being the first member of the royal family to be born in Greece. At his christening on September 3, 1868, he was given the name Constantine as a tribute to his maternal grandfather, Grand Duke Constantine Nikolayevich of Russia, but also in reference to the emperors who ruled Byzantium in the Middle Ages. However, it is with the nickname “Tino” that the prince is known throughout his life in his family. Despite the joy that accompanies the baptism of the child, the ceremony is also the occasion of a controversy between Parliament and the Crown. George I decided to take advantage of the event to confer on his son the title of “Duke of Sparta”, which some members of Parliament considered incompatible with the constitution. After long debates, the title was finally approved by the parliamentarians on September 29, 1868.
In accordance with the aspirations of the Greeks, Constantine and his brothers and sisters were raised in the Orthodox religion, which was not that of their father, who remained Lutheran after his election to the throne. The prince spent a happy childhood, between the royal palace of Sýntagma square, in Athens, and that of Tatoï, at the foot of the Parnes mount. For Constantine and his siblings, King George I and Queen Olga proved to be caring parents and the king often accompanied his children in their games. With his parents and nurses, Constantine spoke English, but Greek was the language he used in class and with his younger siblings. King George I insisted that his children master the language of their people. He used to say to his children: “Never forget that you are foreigners among the Greeks, and make sure that they never remember it”.
The royal family appreciates archaeology and Constantine regularly accompanies his father on the fields of excavations which open on the Acropolis, in the years 1880. As a teenager, the prince received the honorary title of “president of the Greek Archaeological Society”. After the Sunday meal, it is not rare that the young Constantine and his family go to Phaleros, to walk along the waterfront. They would then take the horse-drawn omnibus that passed in front of the palace on Sýntagma Square, in which a compartment was reserved for them. The omnibus stopped, the palace trumpets sounded and the royal family got out quickly, ostensibly to show their desire not to keep the other passengers waiting too long. This attitude brought the sovereigns closer to the population and did much to maintain their sometimes wavering popularity.
In Athens, the day of young Constantine and his siblings begins at six o”clock with a cold bath. After a first breakfast, they attended classes from seven to nine-thirty and then had a second breakfast, together with their father and any relatives of the royal family present in Greece. The lessons then resume from ten o”clock to noon, when the children go to the palace gardens for physical education and gymnastics exercises. Lunch was taken with the family, and then the children resumed lessons from 2 to 4 pm. Finally, at 7:30 p.m., they go to bed. Constantine followed this rhythm until the age of fourteen and was then allowed to have dinner with his parents before going to bed at exactly 22:00.
The education of Constantine and his brothers was directed by three foreign tutors: Dr. Lüders, a Prussian, Monsieur Brissot, a Frenchman, and Mister Dixon, an Englishman. With them, the prince strengthens his knowledge of foreign languages and makes the first rudiments of his education. Ioánnis Pandazídis taught him Greek literature, Vasílios Lákon taught him mathematics and physics, and Konstantínos Paparrigópoulos taught him history, seen through the prism of the “Great Idea” (the desire to unite all Greeks in a single state). However, Constantine was destined above all to exercise military command functions and he was enrolled in the army very early. From October 30, 1882, the young boy went twice a week to the Military Academy of Piraeus, where he had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with other boys of his age for the first time. The prince then served in the 1st infantry division.
First official functions
In 1884, Constantine was sixteen years old and was officially declared of age. In accordance with the constitution, he was then invested diadoque, i.e. heir to the throne. Although he had always been considered the legitimate successor of his father, this was the first time that he was thus distinguished from his younger brothers.
In spite of everything, Constantine remains largely excluded from the Greek political life and his father hardly entrusts him with any official function inside the kingdom. Once he had completed his studies, a law established that he was to perform the duties of regent when the king was abroad, but for the rest of the time he was excluded from the affairs of state. Indeed, George I continued to treat his children as if they were minors and had little confidence in his eldest son”s political abilities, which had important consequences early in his reign.
Some time after he was declared of age, Constantine went with Dr. Lüders to complete his education in Germany, where he spent two full years. He served in the Prussian Guard, took riding lessons in Hanover and studied political science at the universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig. In Heidelberg, the diadoch lived in a residence where he shared a room with his first cousin, the Duke of Clarence, and the two young men became very close. But unlike the English prince, who was indolent and not very studious, Constantine was diligent in his studies and did well at school in Germany.
At the Hohenzollern court in Berlin, the diadoch finds Princess Sophie of Prussia, whom he has already met a few years earlier at Marlborough House, with her uncle the Prince of Wales. The two young people quickly fell in love and officially became engaged on September 3, 1888. However, their relationship was frowned upon by Sophie”s older brother, the Kronprinz and later Kaiser Wilhelm, and his wife. Even within the Greek royal family, the relationship of the two young people was not unanimously approved. Queen Olga showed her reluctance towards the union project: the Prussian princess was indeed Protestant and the queen would have preferred to see the heir to the throne marry an Orthodox woman. Despite the difficulties, Constantine and Sophie became engaged and their wedding was scheduled for October 1889, in Athens.
On October 27, 1889, Constantine and Sophie were united in Athens during two religious ceremonies, one public and Orthodox and the other private and Protestant. The Lutheran service took place in the private chapel of King George I, while the Orthodox ceremony was celebrated in the city”s cathedral. Constantine”s witnesses were his brothers George and Nicholas and his cousin the Czarevich of Russia; Sophie”s witnesses were her brother Henry and her cousins Albert Victor and George of Wales. The wedding was celebrated with pomp and circumstance and gave rise to an important fireworks show on the Acropolis and the Champ-de-Mars. Platforms were erected on the Sýntagma square so that the public could better admire the procession between the royal palace and the cathedral. The festivities gather in Athens representatives of all the European sovereign houses and William II of Germany, Christian IX of Denmark, and the future Edward VII of the United Kingdom and Nicolas II of Russia are the guests of honor. But the guests are so numerous in the Hellenic capital that the king George I must ask some members of the high society to lend him their palaces in order to lodge all the people.
In Athens, Constantine and Sophie settled in a small villa on Kifissías Avenue while waiting for the construction of the diadoch”s palace by the Greek state. They also had another house built on the royal estate of Tatoi, as George I refused to allow the construction of the main palace. The princely couple led a simple life far removed from the protocol of other European courts. In their private life, Constantine and Sophie communicated in English and it was in this language that they raised the six children they soon gave birth to (see above). The princely couple”s relationship was harmonious. In spite of this, Constantine was not always faithful to his wife: from 1912 onwards, he became romantically involved with Countess Paola of Ostheim, who was divorced from Prince Hermann of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach, and the two kept up a close correspondence until Constantine”s death.
Every year, the diadoch and his family spent several weeks in England, where they visited the beaches of Seaford and Eastbourne. The summer was spent in Friedrichshof, at the home of Sophie”s mother, the Dowager Empress of Germany, but also in Corfu and Venice, where the royal family went on board the yacht Amphitrite.
In Greece, the functions of the diadoch are essentially related to the Army and Constantine”s taste for military things makes him rather unpopular. The political class considered him as an arrogant officer, who despised the institutions of the country and acted as a seducer. However, in 1890, Constantine obtained the rank of major general and was appointed commander of the headquarters of the Hellenic army in Athens.
In January 1895, the diadoch was the source of a political scandal after he spoke with demonstrators opposed to the government”s fiscal policy and advised them to pass on their demands to the ministry before ordering the Athenian armed forces and gendarmerie to disperse them. The Prime Minister Charílaos Trikoúpis then asks the sovereign to recommend to his son to avoid such interventions in the political life of the country without informing the government beforehand. But George I replied that the diadoch was only fulfilling his military duties and that his attitude was not political. The incident causes a passionate debate in the Hellenic Parliament and Trikoúpis must finally resign. In the following elections, he was defeated by his opponents and the new Prime Minister, Theódoros Deligiánnis, put an end to the controversy to reconcile the royal family and the government.
With two of his brothers, the princes Georges and Nicolas, Constantin takes an active part in the preparation of the first modern Olympic Games and even receives the presidency of the organizing committee. In 1895, the heir manages to convince the Greek businessman and philanthropist George Averoff to finance the restoration of the Panathenaic stadium, intended to welcome the events, the following year.
During the Olympic Games of 1896, the diadoch acquires a strong popularity which contrasts with the difficulties which it is confronted from the following year. Thus, when the Greek shepherd Spyrídon Loúis wins the test of marathon, Constantine jumps of the bleachers with his brothers to run at the sides of the champion on the last meters while the king George Ier rises of the tribune to applaud them and that the other spectators ovate them.
In January 1897, Crete revolted once again against the Ottoman government and demanded its attachment to Greece. In Athens, the supporters of the “Great Idea” demanded the intervention of the Hellenic kingdom in the conflict and, under their pressure, the king and his prime minister Theódoros Deligiánnis finally sent reinforcements to the insurgents. Prince George, brother of the diadoch Constantine, was thus placed at the head of a flotilla charged with preventing the navy of the Sublime Porte from intervening against the revolts. At the same time, 1 500 Greek soldiers disembarked in the island.
Appointed commander-in-chief of the army of Thessaly as of March 26 and sent to Vólos the same night, Constantine was charged to penetrate in Ottoman territory in order to invade Macedonia. The heir of the throne is however conscious of the unrealistic character of the campaign. His troops are certainly composed of many volunteers but they miss equipment and training. As for the staff, it does not have a true battle plan. The invasion attempt was therefore a failure and the Greeks were quickly driven back to Thessaly by the Turks. The Greek headquarters, established in the city of Larissa, was even occupied by the Ottomans. In fact, from the end of April, the war is lost for the Greeks and the last battles of May only confirm the Turkish superiority.
In spite of the intervention of the foreign powers in favour of Athens at the time of the peace talks of December 1897, the consequences of the defeat were very serious for the Hellenic kingdom: it had to give up its territorial ambitions in Crete and in Macedonia and its Thessalian borders were rectified in favour of the Ottoman Empire. Greece must moreover pay a war indemnity of nearly four million Turkish pounds and that at a time when the public finances are already at the lowest.
The royal family itself did not emerge unscathed from the conflict. While King George I had been reluctant to bring his country into the war, he is now considered responsible for the fiasco that followed. The diadoch Constantine is considered the main responsible for the defeat and a part of public opinion demands that he be tried by court martial. His wife, Princess Sophie of Prussia, was also criticized because of the attitude of her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who openly supported Turkey during the conflict. The couple therefore left Greece for a while and settled in Germany, with Sophie”s mother.
After the war of 1897, the diadoch lost his status as commander-in-chief of the army. However, an assassination attempt against King George I in February 1898 restored some of the popularity of the royal family and the sovereign took advantage of the event to restore his son to his military position. Under the government of Geórgios Theotókis, Constantine was also appointed to head the Hellenic General Staff. However, these decisions make grind many teeth within the army.
In 1908, the government of autonomous Crete proclaimed the attachment of the island to the Hellenic kingdom. For fear of Turkish reprisals, Athens refused to recognize the annexation, but the island was de facto detached from the Ottoman Empire. In Greece, however, the pusillanimity of the king and the government shocked, and this particularly among the military. On August 15, 1909, a group of officers, gathered in the “Military League” (in Greek: Στρατιωκικός Σύνδεσμος Stratiotikos Syndesmos), organized a coup d”état: it was the “Goudi coup. Although declaring themselves monarchists, the members of the League, led by Nikólaos Zorbás, ask, among other things, the sovereign to remove his sons from the army. Officially, it was to protect the princes from jealousies that could arise from their friendships with certain soldiers. But the reality was quite different: the officers continued to judge the diadoch responsible for the trauma of 1897.
In the country, the situation is so tense that the sons of George I are obliged to resign from their military posts in order to save their father the shame of having to send them back. The diadoque and his family were also forced to leave Greece. Princess Sophie and her children settled then, for several months, in Kronberg, in Germany. For his part, Constantine preferred to stay in Paris, where his casual attitude raised a lot of criticism.
In December 1909, Colonel Zorbás, head of the Military League, pressured the king to appoint him as head of the government instead of Prime Minister Kyriakoúlis Mavromichális. George I refused, but the government had to undertake reforms that were in the direction of the military. The staff was reorganized and those close to the diadoch, among whom Ioánnis Metaxás, were removed. In spite of these reforms, a part of the members of the Military League continues to oppose the government with an aim of taking the power. They then went to Crete to meet the head of the island”s government, Eleftherios Venizélos, and offered him the post of Prime Minister in Athens. In fact, when Prince George of Greece was high commissioner of autonomous Crete, between 1905 and 1909, Venizélos fiercely opposed his policy and the Cretan leader thus acquired a strong anti-dynastic aura. The officers of the League thus saw in him a natural and effective partner against King George I. But Venizélos did not wish to appear in Greece as the man of the army and he convinced the military to push for the organization of new legislative elections. In March 1910, the Greek sovereign finally called elections and Venizélos and his supporters came to power. For the royal family, this was a difficult time.
In spite of everything, Venizélos did not seek to weaken the Glücksburg dynasty. To show well that he did not obey the army, the Prime Minister returned, as early as 1911, his function of chief of staff to the diadoch. Soon, under the supervision of Constantine and that of the Prime Minister, the Hellenic army was modernized and equipped, with the support of French and English officers. New warships are also ordered by the navy. The purpose of this modernization is to make the country ready for a new war against the Ottoman Empire.
On October 8, 1912, Montenegro declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Less than ten days later, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece did the same: it was the beginning of the first Balkan war.
On the Greek side, the conflict took place on two fronts: in the northeast of the country, towards Thessaly and Macedonia, and in the northwest, towards Epirus. The Hellenic troops, composed of 120 000 men, are thus divided into two armies and that which goes towards the northeast is commanded by Constantine. This army has for objective, as the government of Eleftherios Venizélos, supported by king George I, ordered it, to reach the city of Thessalonica before the Bulgarian forces. It is there an eminently political and symbolic objective, which goes against the feeling of the staff. In fact, the diadoch and his men would prefer rather to march on Bitola, in the current republic of Macedonia. The objective would then be primarily military: Bitola being the principal Turkish stronghold of the region, its conquest would make it possible to completely defeat the Ottoman troops and thus take a revenge on the defeat of 1897. But the objective is also nationalistic because the capture of Bitola would give the control of the quasi-totality of Macedonia to Greece.
After the Greek victory at Sarantáporo on 22 October, the dissensions between the general staff and the government came to light. To take advantage of the first Greek success, Constantine asked to march on Bitola and his father had to use all his authority to make him accept that the objectives of the conflict were political and not military. The diadoch turns then all his resentment against Venizélos, to whom he reproaches to interfere in the affairs of the army. In spite of everything, Constantine obeys, even if he keeps in mind the possibility of turning over against Bitola after having taken Thessalonica.
After about twenty more days of won battles, the troops of the diadoch arrive at the doors of Thessalonica and encircle the city. The commander of the city and of the IIIrd Turkish army, Hasan Tahsin Pacha, judged his situation untenable. He thus asked to open talks with the Greek staff and also with the Bulgarian representatives, whose army was approaching the city in great steps. However, the Greeks make to the Turks more favorable conditions and the commander goes to the diadoch. The Greek troops, led by Constantine and other members of the royal family, entered Thessaloniki on November 8, the feast day of its patron saint, St. Dimitrios. The event gives rise to scenes of popular jubilation and the princes are ovation by the crowd. The surrender of Hussein Tashin Pasha, who symbolically hands over his sword to Constantine inside the governor”s palace, is one of the highlights of this day.
However, the Hellenic forces precede only a few hours the Bulgarian troops, commanded by the general Georgi Todorov and the princes Boris and Cyril. Dissatisfied with the Greek victory, Todorov declares to Constantine that since Bulgaria and Greece are allied in the conflict, their armies must jointly occupy the Macedonian capital. The diadoque answers him then that it is the Greeks who obtained the surrender of Thessalonica and that it is with them only to hold it. The situation is thus very tense between the two armies. In spite of everything, after a visit of king Ferdinand I of Bulgaria in the city, Athens and Sofia agree to postpone the question of the possession of Thessalonica at the time of the peace talks but it is indeed the Hellenic troops which occupy it.
Once the city was conquered, Constantine became its new governor. It was as such that he welcomed his father, King George I, and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos to the city on November 12, 1912. At this event, the royal family was once again acclaimed and demonstrations of joy occurred in the streets. However, the heir to the throne did not lose sight of his military objectives. Still eager to take Bitola, he sent his troops in the direction of central Macedonia, where they won new victories.
On January 23, 1913, prince Nicolas replaces Constantin at the post of governor of Thessalonica while this one resumes the combat. The diadoch goes then to Epirus, where he replaces the general Konstantinos Sapountzákis, who has just failed in the capture of Ioannina. During all the winter, the heir of the throne saves his men and his ammunition and it is only on March 5 that he resumes the offensive against the city. Constantine then organized a diversionary attack on the forts located to the south-east of Ioannina and an intense artillery bombardment to the immediate south of the city. The diversion worked and the bulk of the Greek troops attacked from the southwest. Essad Pacha, the commander of the Ottoman army, noting his complete encirclement in the fort of Bizáni and seeing the Greek army approaching the capital of Epirus, sent officers to negotiate his surrender and that of the city. The next day (March 6), the Ottomans surrendered unconditionally and the Greek army entered Ioannina. Constantine”s popularity was then at its peak.
Desiring to take advantage of the popularity of the diadoch to reinforce his dynasty, George I takes the decision to abdicate in his favor. On March 18, 1913, the king thus takes advantage of a lunch with his sons Nicolas, Georges and André, in Thessalonica, to announce to them secretly that he wishes to leave the power on the occasion of his jubilee, which must take place in October. The monarch explains to them then that he does not have enough strength any more to continue to govern and that Constantine has from now on the ideal age and the scale necessary to replace him.
After the meal, George I leaves, as every afternoon since he arrived in Thessalonica, to walk in the streets of the city. He moves there almost without any protection, exactly as he does in Athens, since the beginning of his reign. But he is awaited, this day, near the White Tower, by an unbalanced person named Aléxandros Schinás, who shoots him with a revolver. The sovereign was quickly taken to the hospital, but he was already dead when he arrived there. Shortly afterwards, Prince Nicholas was informed of the event and it was he who sent the news of the death to the rest of his family.
Constantine was at the headquarters in Ioannina with his brother Christopher when he received the telegram announcing the death of his father and his new status as king. The day before, the two princes had had a strange experience, which they would soon link to the death of the sovereign. They had indeed had a seance during which it had been announced to the diadocho that he would know fame and glory, that he would win two wars but that he would have to suffer, after that, many sorrows. The message had ended with the words “tomorrow” and “death” and the two princes had gone to bed with a feeling of unease. As of the reception of the telegram of prince Nicolas, on March 18, Constantin leaves for Athens to take oath of fidelity to the constitution there. After having addressed the nation and the Army, the new king embarked on board the Amphitrite in company of several members of his family and Venizélos. He then reaches Thessalonica, where he comes to take the body of his father, to bury him then in Tatoï.
King of the Hellenes
When he ascended the throne, and despite the fact that he did not have the same political experience as his father, Constantine enjoyed enormous prestige among his people. In addition to his recent military glory, the new king has many advantages: he is the first modern ruler to be born in Greece, he is also the first to have been raised in the Orthodox religion. He also bears a very prestigious name: that of the founder of Constantinople (the Roman emperor Constantine I) and that of the last Byzantine emperor (Constantine XI Palaeologus).
But, even if he does not hesitate to make hover some time the doubt on this question, the king refuses prudently to follow the popular will and the reference to Constantine as the twelfth of the name fades little by little with the failure of the concretization of the “Great Idea”, in other words of the regrouping of all the territories populated by Greeks in only one and same fatherland.
The beginning of Constantine”s reign was marked by the peace negotiations which put an end to the first Balkan war. By the treaty of London of May 30, 1913, Greece receives a good part of Macedonia (with Thessalonica, definitively linked to the Hellenic kingdom by the death of George I) as well as part of Epirus, Crete and several Aegean islands. The surface of the country is then more than doubled. However, deep divisions exist between the Balkan kingdoms and Greece must face the claims of the Bulgarians, who still did not accept the loss of Thessalonica.
One month after the signature of the treaty of London, in the night of June 29 to 30, 1913, Bulgaria attacked without warning its former Greek and Serbian allies. The surprise effect allowed it to quickly seize the Greek city of Nigrita.
As soon as the hostilities started, Constantine took back the head of his army and, on June 30, the Hellenic forces counter-attacked on land and sea. Hard fights took place in Kilkís between June 30 and July 4 and the Greek forces, commanded by the king, won. After several attempts of counter-attack to take back the lost positions, the IInd Bulgarian army recognized its defeat and withdrew towards the north, thus abandoning Serres and Dráma.
After Kilkis, the Greek army continued its progression and beat the Bulgarians once again at Dojran, on July 6. To avoid a total catastrophe, the Bulgarian general staff ordered, on July 7, a retreat of the IInd and IVth armies towards the Bulgarian frontier before the First Balkan War. Continuing their advance, the Greeks crossed the Strymon on 10 July and took several positions. They finally penetrated in Bulgarian territory on July 23 but, as of the following day, Constantin I stops the offensive. The Hellenic troops are indeed close to the point of rupture of their lines of communication and provisioning. Especially, they are exhausted by the fights and the forced march towards the north.
Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos then thought of negotiating an armistice with the Bulgarian government. He thus went to the Greek headquarters, in Hadji Beylik, to try to convince the king to ask for peace. However, Constantine I desired a decisive military victory and refused. At the same time, the Bulgarian forces organized themselves and returned to the attack on July 29. Their counter-offensive is so powerful and the relief of the throats of Kresna so unfavourable to the Greeks that, as of the following day, the Hellenic forces are on the verge of total annihilation: Constantine and his army are at the limit of the encirclement and the Hellenic artillery does not manage to be put in batteries because of the uneven ground. The sovereign therefore sent a telegram to his Prime Minister, who had left for Bucharest, in which he acknowledged his failure and asked for an armistice.
Finally, Constantin I and his army are saved by the Bulgarian government which suggests, on its side, a cease-fire in order to protect its capital. The Greek semi defeat of Kresna thus has reduced consequences on the general course of the conflict.
From July 30 to August 10, 1913, a congress was held in Bucharest, under the auspices of the great powers, to put an end to the Second Balkan War. During the negotiations, the main problem between Greece and Bulgaria concerned the outlet to the Aegean Sea that the latter claimed. The Bulgarians wanted to keep a longer stretch of coastline including the port of Kavala, which King Constantine I was willing to concede. However, the Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was in favour of a minimal solution and it was he who finally won the case thanks to the support of France and Germany. The peace treaty, signed on August 10, thus leaves Sofia with only the relatively undeveloped maritime outlet of Dedeağaç. Kavala reverted to Greece, which then extended to the banks of the Mesta. The sovereignty of Athens over Crete is moreover definitively recognized. Greece emerges from the conflict with the status of a true Mediterranean power.
When he returned to Athens on August 5, Constantine received a very warm welcome from his people. Escorted by all the Greek fleet, he arrived at Phaleres on board of the cruiser Averoff in company of the diadoque George. The king and his elder son are then received by the queen Sophie and an immense crowd which ovates them by agitating small flags. The family then went to the royal palace on Sýntagma Square where they met Queen Olga, who exceptionally left her mourning dress to receive her son.
After the Balkan wars, Constantine is so appreciated in Greece that most of the homes of his subjects have a picture or a photo of him that they keep piously, like an icon.
Under these circumstances, relations between Constantine and his Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos calmed down. The two men set up a plan to rebuild the country and assimilate the regions that had just been integrated into the kingdom. But to carry out this policy, the Greek government needed funds. This is why Constantine I undertook a series of diplomatic trips to Western Europe in order to obtain loans for his country.
In the fall of 1913, the king, his wife and several of their children traveled to Germany for three weeks to attend the traditional army maneuvers. The family arrived in Munich on September 4, and while Sophie and her youngest children settled in Friedrichshof, Constantine and the diadoch went on to Berlin. In the imperial capital, the king tried to negotiate a loan to develop the port of Thessalonica and to build a railway line linking Larissa to Macedonia. However, the German government, which had important interests in the Ottoman Empire, was not in a hurry to offer its help to Athens and Constantine did not manage to obtain the funds he had hoped for. In spite of everything, the king makes many efforts to be pleasant with his hosts and that although he has only little friendship for Guillaume II.
For his part, the Kaiser sought to strengthen the ties between Greece and Germany and thus turn the visit of his brother-in-law to his advantage. Since its independence, the Hellenic kingdom has depended largely on the “protective powers” represented by the United Kingdom, France and Russia, and Berlin would look favorably on a rupture between Athens and its traditional allies. During the dinner following the military maneuvers, Guillaume II thus invests Constantin of the prestigious order of the Black Eagle. Above all, he gave him a German field marshal”s baton and appointed him colonel of the 2nd Nassau infantry regiment. The emperor also decorated his nephew, the diadoch George, with the Grand Cross of the Order of the Red Eagle. This was followed by a speech by Wilhelm II in which he recalled that Constantine had received his military training in Germany and that he therefore owed his victories during the Balkan Wars to the Germanic military system of which he was the product. Finally, the imperial speech ends with the statement that Germany now has a strong military ally in Greece on which it can rely.
Taken by surprise and flattered by his brother-in-law”s statements, Constantine improvised a cordial reply in which he spoke of his years of training in Prussia and his gratitude for the experience they had given him. Little did he know that the affair would soon be blown up by the press and cause him major diplomatic problems with France and the United Kingdom.
France having largely contributed to the rearmament of Greece and to the reorganization of its army after the defeat of the Thirty Days” War, public opinion in France was offended by Constantine I”s speech and by the publication of photos of the king in the garb of a German Field Marshal. In the United Kingdom itself, the population was shocked by what it perceived as support for the Kaiser”s policies. However, the German press did not hesitate to throw oil on the fire of international relations by reaffirming loudly and clearly the German-Greek friendship.
Despite these difficulties, the king and his family continued their journey. Before going to Paris as planned, they made a private visit to England and arrived in Eastbourne on September 17, 1913. Constantine wanted to enroll his youngest son, Paul, in the Royal Navy, while his wife wanted to spend a few days of vacation in the country she loved. The King finally arrived alone in France on September 19, two days earlier than originally planned.
On September 21, Constantine went to the Élysée Palace, where he was officially received at lunch by Raymond Poincaré. During the toast, the President of the Republic declared to his host that France “will remain the loyal and true friend that it has always been”. In order to erase the Berlin incident, the king evoked, with effusion, in his answer, the French help and sympathy during the Balkan wars. In spite of everything, the French press was disappointed by the royal speech, which it judged much less enthusiastic than the one pronounced in Germany. For their part, the German newspapers exploited the unease in order to underline the “French irrationality”.
During the remainder of his stay in Paris, Constantine I dined at the home of Prince Roland Bonaparte, father of his sister-in-law Princess Marie of Greece, met with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphen Pichon and gave an interview to the newspaper Le Temps in which he reaffirmed the bonds of friendship uniting his country and France. However, the sovereign did not manage to turn the hexagonal public opinion in his favor and he returned to Athens, at the end of September, with a deep feeling of failure. He is not mistaken besides and the behavior of the French government with regard to him during the First World War shows it quickly.
In Greece, Constantine I and Sophie continued to lead the simple life they had led when they were only heirs to the throne. They devoted their free time to botany, which was their common passion, and transformed the gardens of the new royal palace on the English model. The queen was also in charge of a major reforestation program in the country, which allowed her to put into practice her taste for arboriculture.
The couple remains very close to his family, especially Prince Nicholas. Every Tuesday, the sovereigns go to dinner at the home of the king”s brother and his wife, and on Thursdays, it is their turn to go to the royal palace. It must be said that life in Athens was not very lively and that, apart from the other members of the sovereign family, Constantine and Sophie could only meet the upper middle class merchants.
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the members of the royal family were scattered throughout Europe. Queen Sophie, several of her children and Prince Christopher were in England, Prince George and his wife Marie Bonaparte were in Denmark, Prince Nicholas, his wife Helene Vladimirovna and Queen Dowager Olga were in St. Petersburg and only Constantine and his daughter Helene were in Athens. In the following weeks, all except George and Marie.
At the end of July 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm sent a telegram to Constantine asking him what Greece”s attitude would be in the event of war. The king informed him that he had no intention of involving his country in a new conflict and that he would therefore choose neutrality. In response, the emperor threatened to tell his brother-in-law that if Greece refused to ally with Germany, it would be treated as an enemy by Germany. In spite of everything, the King of the Hellenes remained firm and maintained his decision not to intervene. He is indeed conscious that Greece emerged very weakened from the Balkan wars and that it is not at all ready to take part in a new conflict.
However, not everyone in Greece shared the monarch”s opinion. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos wanted to take advantage of the outbreak of the First World War to carry out the “Great Idea” and continue the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The politician, who suspected the royal family of connivance with the Emperor William, therefore contacted the governments of the Triple Entente. However, those do not show themselves at first in a hurry to see the Hellenic kingdom intervening in the conflict. In fact, Russia fears the Greek claims on Constantinople and the Straits.
The attitude of the Allies changed, however, from 1915 onwards. In January of that year, Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, proposed to Athens to exchange part of the recently annexed Thrace and Macedonia for Northern Epirus and a piece of Asia Minor. The territories conquered during the Second Balkan War would then be returned to Sofia, which would ally itself with the Entente at the same time as Greece. But the British proposal remained vague: while they were talking with Athens, London, St. Petersburg and Paris were discussing, in parallel, the conditions of Rome”s entry into the conflict and also promised it the same zone of influence in Anatolia. Constantine I and his advisors were therefore reluctant to accept the British offer. On the other hand, Venizélos did not hide his interest in Grey”s approach.
Things became more complicated when the Entente entered the battle of the Dardanelles in February. Eager to liberate the Greek populations of Asia Minor from the Ottoman yoke, Constantine declared himself, at first, ready to offer his support to the Allies and to bring his country into the battle. However, the king found himself confronted with the opposition of his staff and, in particular, of Ioánnis Metaxás, who threatened to resign if Greece entered the war although it did not have the means to do so. Constantine thus turned back, which provoked the fury of Venizélos. This one tries then, by all the means, to make enter Greece in the war in spite of the royal opposition. But, faced with the common front of the king, the army and the majority of the government, the Prime Minister finally resigned on 6 March.
Weakened by all these events, Constantine I falls seriously ill. Afflicted of a pleurisy aggravated by a pneumonia, he takes the bed during several weeks and almost dies. In Greece, the public opinion is moved by the situation, especially since a rumor, propagated by the venizelists, says that the king is not sick but that the queen has, in reality, wounded him with a knife during an argument where she pretended to force him to enter the war on the side of the emperor William. The health of the sovereign declines so much that a ship is sent in the island of Tinos in order to seek the miraculous icon of the Virgin with the Child there supposed to look after the sick. After kissing the holy image, the king partially recovers his health but his situation remains worrying and he needs to be operated before he can resume his functions.
During the period of the king”s illness, the Entente continued to put pressure on Greece to enter the war on its side. Appointed Prime Minister after the departure of Venizélos, Dimítrios Goúnaris therefore proposed the intervention of his country in the conflict in exchange for the protection of the Allies against a possible Bulgarian attack. However, the Entente, always eager to establish an alliance with Sofia, refused the agreement.
At the same time, things were moving fast in Greece and the Balkans. In June 1915, legislative elections gave victory to the Venizelists. A month later, Constantine I, still convalescent, took over the leadership of the country and finally recalled Venizélos as head of the cabinet on 16 August. In September, Bulgaria entered the war alongside the central powers and attacked Serbia, which had been allied with Greece since 1913. Venizelos took advantage of the event to ask the sovereign to proclaim general mobilization, which the latter refused. As a result, the Prime Minister threatened to resign again and thus provoke a major political crisis. Constantine therefore ended up proclaiming mobilization but made it clear to the army that this was a purely defensive measure. In order to force the king”s hand, Venizelos invited, on October 3, the Allies to occupy the port of Thessaloniki but Constantine sent him away just as the Franco-Italian-English forces landed in the city. Between the two men, the rupture was now definitive and it had serious consequences for the king.
On the side of the Allied governments, Constantine”s attitude appeared to be a real betrayal and it was from then on under the guise of convinced Germanophiles that he and his wife appeared in the Entente newspapers. In fact, by refusing to enter the war, Athens prevented the Franco-British troops from coming to the aid of Serbia, whose armies were soon overwhelmed by the Austro-Bulgarian coalition, and made the Allied victory in the Dardanelles even more uncertain. In retaliation, France, the United Kingdom and Russia signed the London Pact with Italy, which reserved for Rome the possession of Vlora, in Albanian Epirus, and Antalya, in Anatolia. At the same time, the Entente ordered Athens to demobilize its army while martial law was proclaimed in Thessaloniki and a partial blockade was imposed on Greece.
Despite this, Constantine was far from losing his support in the country. The withdrawal of British troops from the Dardanelles, in December 1915, reinforced, on the contrary, the confidence of many Greeks in their sovereign and Constantine took advantage of this event to call new elections. Aware of the electoral defeat that surely awaited them, Venizélos and his supporters refused to take part in the ballot and declared the new Hellenic parliament illegal.
From then on, the Greek government pursued a policy increasingly favourable to the central powers. Athens thus officially protested against the transfer of the Serbian army to Corfu and then to Thessalonica. Orders were also given to the officers present at the border not to oppose a possible Bulgarian advance into the country, which occurred on 27 May 1916. Finally, Constantine I symbolically proclaimed, in April 1916, the annexation of Northern Epirus to Greece in order to protest against the Italian intervention in Albania.
Now considered an enemy of the Entente, Constantine had to face its increasingly violent opposition. France thus developed various projects to kidnap or assassinate the sovereign. On July 14, 1916, an arson attack, possibly started by agents from Paris, occurred in the forest surrounding the royal palace of Tatoi. In the confusion of the event, Queen Sophie rescued her youngest daughter, Princess Catherine, and walked more than two kilometers through the woods with the child in her arms. Several members of the royal family, including Constantine himself, were injured and the residence of the sovereigns was largely destroyed by the flames. Above all, sixteen (or eighteen, depending on the source) soldiers and other members of the palace staff were killed.
After these events, the attitude of the royal family towards Germany changed considerably. Between December 1916 and February 1917, Queen Sophie, who had long been less Germanophile than her husband, sent several telegrams to her brother asking him when the troops of the Triplice would be able to intervene in Macedonia. However, the sovereign had never been very close to her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm, and had never really forgiven his attitude at the time of his marriage and his conversion to Orthodoxy. But the violation of Greek neutrality by the Entente and the threats against the lives of her husband and children gradually led her to change her mind about the Allies.
In October 1916, Elefthérios Venizélos organized a provisional government in Thessaloniki to rival the one led by Spyrídon Lámpros in Athens. It is the beginning of the “National Schism” (modern Greek: εθνικός Διχασμός ethnikós Dikhasmós). Thessaly, Epirus, as well as part of the army follow the former prime minister, while the rest of the country retains its loyalty to the monarch. A neutral zone between the north and “old Greece” (in other words, the first region to be freed from the Ottoman yoke) was organized by the Entente, which also supported Venizélos” government financially.
At the same time, a Franco-British fleet, commanded by Admiral Louis Dartige du Fournet, occupied the bay of Salamis to put pressure on Athens, to whom various ultimatums, mainly concerning the disarmament of its army, were sent. On December 1, 1916, Entente soldiers disembarked in Athens to seize artillery pieces promised by the sovereign two months earlier. However, Greek reservists were secretly mobilized before the intervention and fortified Athens. The French were thus welcomed by a heavy fire and their massacre was nicknamed by the press of the time the “Greek Vespers”. After the event, the king congratulated his minister of war and general Doúsmanis. On the other side, the Entente reacted rather weakly. The French fleet bombed the royal palace in Athens and the government of Aristide Briand proposed to the Allies the deposition of Constantine. It is then question of replacing him by his younger brother, Prince George. However, Russia, but also Italy, refused to intervene because they feared the Greek claims on Asia Minor and because of the family ties uniting Constantine to Tsar Nicolas II.
From one exile to another
With the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the deposition of Nicholas II, Constantine I lost the last of his support within the Entente. Thus, on June 10, 1917, Charles Jonnart, the allied high commissioner, asked the Greek government to abdicate the king and replace him with a prince other than the diadoch, considered too Germanophile. Under the threat of a landing of 10 000 soldiers in Piraeus, Constantine thus gave up the power in favour of his second son, prince Alexander. In spite of everything, the sovereign refuses to abdicate and explains to his successor that he should not consider himself otherwise than as a kind of regent, charged to occupy the throne while waiting for the return of the legitimate monarch.
On June 11, the royal family fled, in secret, the palace of Athens, surrounded by a loyalist crowd which refused to see Constantine leave, and reached Tatoi. In the following days, Constantine, his wife and five of their children left Greece, in Oropos, and took the way of exile. It is the last time that the family is in contact with the one who is from now on the king Alexander I. In fact, as soon as they returned to power, the venizelists forbade any contact between the new sovereign and his parents.
After crossing the Ionian Sea and Italy, Constantine and his family settled in German-speaking Switzerland, first in St. Moritz, then in Zurich. In their exile, the sovereigns were soon followed by almost the entire royal family, who left Greece with the return of Venizelos as head of the cabinet and the country”s entry into the war on the side of the Entente. However, the financial situation of the royal family was not the most brilliant and Constantine, haunted by a deep feeling of failure, soon fell ill. In 1918, he contracted the Spanish flu and once again almost died.
The return of Constantine and the royal family to Athens, on December 19, 1920, was accompanied by large popular demonstrations; he was even made a mason “on sight” by the Grand Master of Greece. However, the presence of the king did not bring the peace expected by the population. Even more, it prevented the country from receiving the support of the great powers in the war that had opposed it to Mustafa Kemal”s Turkey since 1919. In fact, the former allies had not forgiven Constantine for his attitude during the First World War and were not ready to provide him with support. As for the king, even though he went to Anatolia in 1921 to support the morale of the Greek troops, he was no longer the dynamic commander-in-chief who had led his country to victory during the Balkan wars of 1912-1913. Seriously diminished by illness, he had to return to Greece in September 1921.
The Greek-Turkish war continued until the Hellenic defeat of Sakarya, in August-September 1921, and the reconquest of Smyrna by the Turks, in September 1922. After these events, the country sinks in a deep political and moral crisis. While Mustafa Kemal gradually reconquered Anatolia and Eastern Thrace, thousands of Greeks were murdered while the others were expelled. This was the “Great Catastrophe”, later enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923.
On September 11, 1922 (Julian), a part of the Greek army, commanded by General Nikólaos Plastíras, rose up and demanded the abdication of Constantine I as well as the dissolution of the Hellenic Parliament. After consulting his friend, General Ioánnis Metaxás, the king abdicated on September 27, while his eldest son succeeded him, for a few months only, on the throne under the name George II.
On October 30, Constantine, his wife and the princesses Irene and Catherine left their country once again and settled in Villa Igiea in Palermo. In Greece, however, tensions did not subside and the new government began the hunt for those responsible for the “Great Catastrophe”. Several political and military personalities are thus condemned to death at the time of the “Trial of the Six” and prince André of Greece, brother of Constantin I, escapes the execution only thanks to the intervention of the foreign legations.
In exile, the deposed king became increasingly depressed and sometimes remained for hours without speaking, his eyes lost in the dark. Stricken with arteriosclerosis, he finally died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 11, 1923. Faced with the refusal of the Greek revolutionary government to give the former sovereign an official funeral, a ceremony was organized in the Orthodox church of Naples and the Italian government gave him the last honors. The remains of the sovereign were then transferred to the Russian church in Florence, where they rested for several years. The ashes of the king, his wife Sophie and his mother Olga were finally repatriated to Greece in 1936, upon the intervention of the newly restored King George II. Since then, they rest in the royal necropolis of Tatoi.
At the end of the First World War and at the very beginning of the 1920s, several works devoted to King Constantine I appeared in Greece and in the Entente countries. Close to the Venizelist movement, various authors of Greek origin presented the sovereign in the darkest light. Thus, in In the heart of German intrigue (in French: Les Intrigues germaniques en Grèce), the Greek-American journalist and writer Demetra Vaka-Brown describes the sovereign as a fierce Germanophile, totally convinced of German superiority. Constantine”s former secretary, George M. Mélas (L”Ex-roi Constantin, souvenirs d”un ancien secrétaire), insists on his master”s “betrayal” of Greece”s traditional protectors (France, the United Kingdom and Russia) and describes Prince Nicolas, the monarch”s brother, as the monarchy”s “evil genius. A similar discourse is found in the Greek politician Leon Maccas who accuses the monarch of having thrown himself into the arms of Germany because of the influence of his wife and his taste for authoritarian regimes.
The view of Constantine and his reign changed considerably in the 1930s. While the Countess Paola d”Ostheim published the correspondence of her former lover in order to make his personality better known, other authors drew a much more flattering portrait of him than in the past. Thus, in France, a country that has largely participated in the deposition of the sovereign and the victory of Eleftherios Venizelos, Edouard Driault (with The Basilisk Constantine XII, hero and martyr) and Mrs. Luc Valti (with My Friend the King) insist on the injustice with which the former king was treated by the Allies and on the positive aspects of his reign.
With the Second World War, the personality of Constantine fell into relative oblivion. In France, the few lines that are still devoted to him are now in more general works, dealing with the history of contemporary Greece, such as those by Apostolos Vacalopoulos or Marc Terrades. However, the sovereign continues to interest the historians of the royal families, whether they are British (like Alan Palmer and John Van der Kiste) or Spanish (like Ricardo Mateos Sáinz de Medrano). Thus, various authors, sometimes very close to their subject of work, such as Major Arthur Gould Lee or Prince Michael of Greece, published works devoted to the entire Greek dynasty. Constantine appears then under the features of a man who sought especially to preserve Greece from the misdeeds of the war at a time when the country was not ready to deliver it. However, it is also the anecdotal and private aspects of the monarch”s life that now interest the authors. As John Van der Kiste notes of Evelyn E. P. Tisdall”s work, some works then sometimes read “more like with dates than .
In The Athenians, the British journalist and writer Beverley Nichols tells the story of a young Englishwoman who was assigned by the British Secret Service to assassinate King Constantine during the First World War. However, this spy novel, which is based on the investigation conducted by the author in Greece after the restoration of the sovereign, was never published because the publishing house of Nichols considered it too compromising. The work, originally dedicated to Queen Sophie, exists today only in manuscript form.
Cinema and television
On the screen, the character of King Constantine appears in several works:
In Greece, the name of Constantine was sung by both his supporters and opponents:
In Greece, two equestrian statues with the effigy of the former king pay tribute to him:
Philately and numismatics
Various stamps with the effigy of Constantine I were issued by the Greek post office:
Various coins bearing the effigy of Constantine I were minted by the Kingdom of Greece between 1913 and 1922. In addition, a commemorative coin of 30 silver drachmas representing the five rulers of the Glücksburg dynasty was made on the occasion of the dynasty”s centenary in 1963.
To celebrate the Greek victory of Kilkís during the second Balkan war, a medal bearing, on one side, the portrait of King Constantine I and, on the other, that of the Byzantine emperor Basil II, known as “the Bulgarocton” (Bulgar killer), was struck in 1913.
In 1936, the order of Saints George and Constantine (Greek: Βασιλικό και οικογενειακό τάγμα Αγίων Γεωργίου και Κωνσταντίνου Vasiliko ke ikogeniako tagma Agion Georgiou ke Konstantinou) was created in reference to the patron saints of Constantine I and his predecessor, King George I, by George II of Greece.
Constantine and Sophie in the Europe of kings
About the royal family of Greece and its members