The “Usual Business of Destruction and Murder” in Nicomedia

Nicomedia battle

As soon as World War I was over in November 1918, the victors began to carve up the Ottoman Empire. However, many Turkish officers of the old Ottoman army had refused to cede to the enemy, and quickly organized a nationalist movement. Mustafa Kemal, a hero of the Gallipoli campaign, formed an army and prepared to defend Turkish interests. Meanwhile, Greece was just as determined to reclaim its ancient territory on the south-east side of the Aegean Sea. With the approval of Britain’s Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, the Greek army landed on Turkish shores in May 1919. Thus began the Greco-Turkish war. And as in any war, the civilians suffered the most. They were the victims of shooting, looting, burning, rape, and plunder—by both sides. In the Spring of 1920, there was fighting in the region of Nicomedia. Or as Scottish-born nurse Grisell McLaren called it, “the usual business of destruction and murder.”

Grisell had been a missionary in Van 1910-15, and had been forcibly removed by the Turkish army to Bitlis in April 1915, following the massacre there of Armenians. She remained in Bitlis, throughout the deportations, until 1917 when the United States entered World War I and all Americans, as well as those who worked for American organizations, were ordered to leave the country. She decided to make good use of her time at home, and went to nursing school. In the fall of 1920, she returned to Turkey as a nurse for Near East Relief, and was assigned to Ismidt [İzmit today], which was the new name of the ancient city of Nicomedia. Because of her ability to speak Turkish and Armenian, Grisell was a valuable asset in training local women to be nurses. But it was not an easy time to have come back: The fighting was getting very close.

April 1921

Grisell wrote: The Nationalists are about their usual business of destruction and murder. Last week several villages just across the Gulf were burned, and as I write I can hear the booming of cannon as the Greeks and Turks are fighting at Bardezag. The Greeks, who are in control here, are not allowing people to leave the city very freely. Many, of course, with past events still fresh in their minds are eager to get out of what may well be considered a danger zone. The Greeks have promised safe conduct for all Christians should there be trouble here. The Turks are said to have threatened to set fire to the Christian quarter, but since about 100 of them have been arrested, there seems to be no further talk. Here we sit at the foot of a smoldering volcano, and no one knows when it will pour its fire upon us. Meanwhile we go on with our work calmly.

The Greeks have promised to give us the fine Turkish hospital with four or five good buildings as soon as they can put their soldiers out in tents. We are eagerly looking forward to this, since our present quarters in a Turkish school are not all that one might desire. The Near East Relief has a large work here, and is helping many. They have recently gathered up many refugee children, both Greek and Armenian, and after cleaning them up thoroughly have sent them to school, with one good meal daily. As yet I have visited none of the refugee camps, nor have I seen any of the medical or relief work outside the hospital. The steep hills one has to climb here to get anywhere make all excursions of that kind prohibitive for me at present. However, I am well, and happy, and I hope I am doing some permanent good.

June 1921

Within weeks, terrified civilians from the outlying villages flooded Ismidt. The NER workers did what they could to help, but the numbers were overwhelming. In June the terrible, “smoldering volcano” of war arrived at their doorstep. The Nationalists had entered the city—with “their usual business.”

Genocide of the Greeks in Turkey book coverJournalist Kostas Faltaits was in the region at the time. He interviewed eyewitnesses to the atrocities by the Nationalists against the Greeks in the Nicomedia region, and many of his articles were printed in the Greek newspaper, Embros. In 2016 his writings were translated into English, and described in context by editors Ellene Phoufas-Jousma and Aris Tsilfidis, in The Genocide of the Greeks in Turkey: Survivor Testimonies from the Nicomedia (Izmit) Massacres of 1920-1921. This book is an important contribution to the body of literature on the crimes against humanity in the late Ottoman Empire.

Note: By the Fall of 1921, Grisell had moved with the other medical staff to Erevan, Armenia to continue relief work there.

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Lithograph by Karl Haupt of Battle of Sangarios during the Greco-Turkish War, 1921, over a contemporary map of Turkey.

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