Hasan Tahsin Pasha (1845–1918) was the Ottoman Commander of the 8th Army Corps who in October 1912 handed Thessaloniki over to the Greeks.
He did so without firing a shot.
He has been called a traitor, condemned to death by the Ottoman military court in Istanbul, and suffered the indignity of spending his last years as an exile.
On the other hand, he is considered to be a hero because he spared the city of Thessaloniki the damages and destruction of war.
Before we arrive at any conclusions though, let us trace the events that led to the surrender and the handover of Thessaloniki to the Greeks.
The first Balkan War started in early October 1912 as an armed conflict between Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria on one side and the Ottoman Empire on the other. Greece was the weakest of the three major Balkan allies, with a population of only 2.7 million and with fresh memories of the humiliating defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1897.
In spite of its apparent inferirority, the Greek Army started the war with a decisive victory in Sarantaporo, followed by another in the battle of Yannitsa. The liberation of Thessaloniki almost immediately after the battle of Yannitsa was the climax of Tahsin Pasha’s personal drama.
Note on the dates
Please note that some of the dates of the events mentioned below are based on the old calendar, as is for example the date of the liberation of Thessaloniki, 26th October 1912. In the modern calendar, the date is the 9th November. In any case, Whenever the date is based on the old calendar, I make a note.
The Battle of Sarantaporo
The Battle of Sarantaporo, variously also transliterated as ‘Sarantaporon or Sarandaporon (Greek: Μάχη του Σαρανταπόρου) took place on October 9-10 (old calendar), 1912. It was the first major battle fought between the Greek and Ottoman armies in the First Balkan War, and resulted in a Greek victory.
The battle was of major significance to the war. The Greek soldiers performed well, and the victory helped expunge the stain of the defeat in the war of 1897. Furthermore, the Sarantaporo passes were the only positions where the numerically inferior Ottoman forces had any hope of stopping the Greek Army. Field Marshal von der Goltz had confidently proclaimed that the passes would prove to be “the graveyard of the Greek Army”.
In his memoirs, General Hassan Tahsin Pasha, describes, in his own way, the conditions, which prevailed, and the outcome of the collapse of the front (3):
“The Chief of Staff, who returned, in the early hours of the morning, a human wreck, because of the fatigue and anguish felt by his soul, reported flatly to me that the last hope of maintaining the defence of the passage through the gates was lost because of the indescribable panic which had been caused and the uncontrollable flight of the reserves who had been saved from the bloody struggle at the fort of… I anticipated that it would be impossible to confront the enemy on a new line because of its overwhelming superiority both in quantity and quality, especially in its artillery, where the ratio was such that it brought with it apparent implications not only for this line itself but for the entire front in western and central Macedonia. It was, however, in the morale of the opposing forces where the difference was greatest”.
After the battle of Sarantaporo, “The demoralized Ottomans retreated northward, abandoning stores and equipment. The Greeks pursued them leisurely. The exhaustion of their troops and the dificulties of transportation prevented them from chasing the enemy and delivering a decisive blow. They also lacked an effective appreciation of reconnaissance. One observer noted, ‘There is no such thing as a scout in the whole Greek army’. The same inability and disinclination to pursue the defeated enemy beset the Serbs after Kumanovo and the Bulgarians after Lozengrad.” (1)
Following the victory at Sarantaporo the first tension between Crown Prince Constantine and Venizelos surfaced, in a dispute over the army’s course . Constantine wanted to march due north, towards Monastir, while Venizelos was anxious that the army should turn east, towards the strategically important city and harbor of Thessaloniki. King George overruled his son’s insistence that the army pursue a military rather than a political agenda and Salonika became the chief objective of the Greek army. This development reinforced the divide between the Crown Prince and prime minister Venizelos, which would result in the former being ousted by the latter in 1917.
The battle of Yannitsa
“On 1 November, Ottoman positions at Yanitsa (Turkish, Yenije Vardar) held up the Greek advance. The two sides fought a bloody battle. The Ottomans, reinforced by troops from Bitola, resisted stoutly at first. On 2 November, the Greeks overran the Ottoman positions at a cost of 1,200 dead and wounded, with around 1,960 dead and wounded ottoman. They then turned to the east toward their goal. The Ottomans had destroyed the road bridge, but not the railway bridge over the Vardar River. Using the railway bridge, the Greeks continued their advance. The way to Salonika was now open.” (1)
The battle of Yannitsa freed the way for the liberation of Thessaloniki.
The defeated Turks rushed back on the road to Thessaloniki. Their morale destroyed, their ankles deep in mud. The military correspondent of the “Times”, Crawford Price wrote: “I have seen a lot of noteworthy things in Macedonia, but nothing as dramatic as the retreat of the defeated Tahsin Pasha’s troops the day after the battle of Yannitsa.”
The artillery commander Manouil Raktivan wrote to Penelope Delta “20th October – old calendar – in Yannitsa. It is the day we actually got Thessaloniki back.” (2)
The liberation of Thessaloniki by the Greek Army
Greek troops were closing in and Salonica was in great danger. As fighting was going on in Giannitsa, the ex-Sultan in exile, Abdülhamit II, was removed from Salonica back to Istanbul for his safety (see my article on Abdülhamit II). Meanwhile, the Greeks supported the Thessaly Army from the sea. Troops were landed on the shores east of Salonica on 5 November and on the same day a Greek destroyer sunk the Ottoman warship Feth-i Bülent, which was anchored at the port of Salonica.
The town was not only blockaded, but Greek warships, including Averof, were shelling the Turkish fortifications as well. (7)
The Governor of Salonica, Nazım Bey, asked Hasan Tahsin Paşa not to fight in the suburbs in order to protect the city and its inhabitants from harm. The Turkish commander was desperate. He had only 25,000 men, encircled by more than 100,000 Greeks and Bulgarians, and he was thinking that surrender would be a better idea than futile bloodshed. An armistice was agreed by between Hasan Tahsin Paşa and Crown Prince Constantine and on November 9, troops of the Thessaly Army occupied the city without facing resistance. One thousand Turkish officers, including Hasan Tahsin himself, and 25,000 men were taken prisoner and 70 artillery guns were confiscated. Two days later, the King of Greece, George I, entered Salonica amidst the cheers of the local Christian population. Meanwhile, the Struma Corps commanded by Ali Nadir Paşa, which was supposed to prevent the Serbian forces from reaching the Aegean shores, had surrendered as well. (7)
The British reporter, Crawford Price, conveys the image of the entrance of the Greek army to the readers of the Times (3):
«The first afternoon hours had already passed when a detachment of cavalry at the head of the Evzone battalion proceeded through the streets of Thessaloniki in this way offering an opportunity to the Greek population of the Macedonian capital to demonstrate their feelings. The flags with the Turkish crescent moon disappeared as if by magic and were replaced everywhere by blue and white Greek flags. Beautiful girls on their balconies were showering the victors with rose petals until every road was covered with a carpet of flowers and the crowd was cheering continuously. So great was the crowd which had gathered before the khaki-clad soldiers that it was only with difficulty that the soldiers were able to proceed even in simple lines.”
Richard Hall comments on the surrender of Tahsin Pasha: “The Ottomans sold Salonika cheaply. Although the Greek fleet cut off the city and any hopes of reinforcement by sea, the Ottomans still had significant forces in Macedonia at the time of surrender. They might have resisted for a while on the east bank of the Vardar River, which formed a significant natural obstacle. Unfortunately, they did not even destroy the railway bridge across the river. They also might have bought valuable time by extending the negotiations and exploiting the rivalry between the Bulgarians and the Greeks. These failures were the fault of the Ottoman command. Clearly Hassan Tahsin Pasha was not up to his responsibilities.” (1)
Tahsin Pasha was Albanian, a son in the family of Messare. He studied at the Zossimaea School of Ioannina and married a Greek woman who had converted to Islam.
He served in the Ottoman Army for 40 years, and everywhere he left the impression of an able, modest and fair commander.
He met with Eleftherios Venizelos while he was stationed on the island of Crete.
Some observers alleged that he was in touch with Venizelos while preparing to surrender Thessaloniki.
No matter what his motives were, it is clear from the turn of events that Tahsin Pasha did not want to destroy the city, or subject it to the perils of war.
He also did not cherish the thought of the Bulgarians playing a role in the new regime of Thessaloniki.
After his captivity by the Greeks, Tahsin Pasha and his son and adjutant Kenan Messare were sent with the help of Venizelos to France and later to Lausanne, in Switzerland, where Tahsin Pasha perished in 1918.
The mansion in Gefyra (Topsin)
Gefyra is a small town on the 25th kilometer of the road from Thessaloniki to Edessa, near the river Axios. Gefyra in Greek means bridge.
In the southeastern part of the town, called in Turkish “Topsin” (a place of artillery) is a mansion in the middle of the Modiano agricultural estate. The masion was built in 1906 on designs by archtect P. Arigoni, by Yakos Modiano, one of the three sons of Saul Modiano, the second richest owner of land in Ottoman Empire. In the high days of the estate you could see more than 1,000 workers in the farm and the estate.
In 1999 the mansion was bought by the Greek Army and became the Museum of Balkan Wars.
In the courtyard of the Museum the visitor will see a monument to Tahsin Pasha. The remains of Tahsin Pasha and his son and adjutant Kenan Messare have been placed inside the monument.
The Turks who visit the museum hear Tahsin Pasha’s name with a condescending nod. In the Turkish language even today they use the following expression when one answers how hard is to do something: “As hard as the capture of Salonica!”
Field Marshal von der Goltz
After defeat in the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), Sultan Hamid, ruler of the Ottoman Empire, asked for German aid in reorganizing the Ottoman Army, so that they would be able to resist the advance of the Russian Empire. Baron von der Goltz was sent. He spent twelve years on this work which provided the material for several of his books. After some years he was given the title Pasha (a signal honor for a non-Muslim) and in 1895, just before he returned to Germany, he was named Mushir (field-marshal). His improvements to the Ottoman army were significant and the Turkish army stopped at the gates of Athens in the Greco-Turkish War (1897), only when the Czar Nicholas II of Russia threatened the Ottoman Sultan that he would be attacking the Ottoman Empire from eastern Anatolia, unless the Ottoman Army stopped the campaign.
On his return to Germany in 1896 Goltz became a lieutenant-general and commander of the 5th division, and in 1898, head of the Engineer and Pioneer Corps and inspector-general of fortifications. In 1900 he was made general of infantry and in 1902 commander of the I. army corps. In 1907 he was made inspector-general of the newly created sixth army inspection established at Berlin, and in 1908 was given the rank of colonel-general (Generaloberst). Following the 1911 manœuvres Goltz was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall (Field Marshal), and retired from active service. In 1911 he founded the Jungdeutschlandbund (Young German League), an umbrella organization of right wing German youth associations.
Goltz died on 19 April 1916, in Baghdad, just two weeks before the British in Kut surrendered. The official reason for his death was typhus, although apparently there were rumors that he had been poisoned by the Turks. In accordance with his will, he was buried in the grounds of the German Consulate in Tarabya, Istanbul, overlooking the Bosporus.
(1) Richard Hall, The Balkan Wars
(2) Themes of Greek History: the Battle and Liberation of Yannitsa
(3) Loukianos Hassiotis, MACEDONIA, 1912-1923: FROM THE MULTINATIONAL EMPIRE TO NATION STATE
(4) Χρίστος Κ. Χριστοδούλου, Οι τρεις ταφές του Χασάν Ταχσίν Πασά με Πρόλογο του Βασίλη Γούναρη. Εκδοσεις Επίκεντρο
(5) Έφη Αλλαμανή, Το Μουσείο των Βαλκανικών Πολέμων στη Γέφυρα και ο Οθωμανός αρχιστράτηγος Χασάν Ταχσίν πασά
(6) Γιωτα Mυρτσιωτη, Μια έπαυλη γεμάτη με ιστορία και μνήμες, Το Στρατιωτικό Μουσείο διασώζει ενθυμήματα των Βαλκανικών Πολέμων, Καθημερινη 18-12-11