After the start of World War I, with the emergence of a national division in Greece between 1915-1917, Greece was divided into two parts as North and South. Under the leadership of Eleftherios Venizelos, Northern Greece wanted to be on the side of England-France, while King Constantine in Southern Greece thought that Greece should be outside the WWI.
After the French forces landed in Thessaloniki in 1916, when the Allied Powers on the Macedonian front succeeded, Greece preferred to be on the side of the Allied Powers in 1917. After the end of WWI, the Neuilly Treaty (27 November 1919) was signed between Greece and Bulgaria in 1919, according to this agreement, Bulgaria left Western Thrace to Greece.
After the treaty, the French forces invaded Western Thrace on behalf of the Allied forces and established an autonomous administration affiliated with France in the region. The French administration in Western Thrace lasted a total of 7 months (10 October 1919-14 May 1920). During French rule, the center of Western Thrace became Komotini, General Charles Antoine Charpy (1869-1941) was appointed as the General Governor of Western Thrace by French Marshal Louis Franchet d 'Espèrey. France aims to establish a mandatory administration in Western Thrace, independent of domestic affairs but dependent on France in foreign affairs. The majority of French soldiers consisted of Senegal, Algerian and Moroccan Muslim soldiers, the French colony (Francophone). The soldiers showed good behavior towards Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews residing in the region. Governor Charpy Arif Zade appointed Arif Efendi as a governor.
Mission and Vision of the French Administration in Western Thrace:
- Dominating the unity in the region and establishing peace
-Respect for the indigenous people's tradition, culture, and religion.
- Bringing members of different religions and nations to the state level
- Increasing the number of civil servants
- The contribution of the Western Thrace region to the French state and the need of the people of the region regardless of religion and nation.
- Using French money as currency.
- Printing French seals and postcards.
- Muslims to continue their sharia courts.
- Ottoman State laws to remain in force in courts.
- Official languages to be French, Turkish and Greek.
- Enforcement of the French curriculum in schools.
- Performing non-political issues without consulting the French.
- The formation of the police forces.
- Taking the French administration system as a prototype.
- Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Armenians and Jews to have their own representatives.
- Evaluation and preservation of cultural and historical monuments in Western Thrace within the scope of cultural heritage.
During this period, the French administration made economic investments, contributing to Jews and Armenians in the fields of trade, to Bulgarians, Turks, and Greeks in the fields of agriculture and animal husbandry. In addition, France used the ports of Alexandroupolis (Dedeağaç) and Porto Lagos (Karaağaç Pier) economically and militarily. The biggest investment France has made in Western Thrace is the Agricultural Station built on the exit of Komotini-Xanthi road. Thanks to the Agricultural Station, the food needs of Western Thrace were met. The French Government provided 800 tons of salt, wheat, and barley to Western Thrace. In addition, a diesel-powered power generation factory was established in the courtyard of the Imaret Mosque, in order to meet the electricity needs of the city. Train stations in Western Thrace have been renovated and built a bridge to the city center.
France not only attaches importance to the education system in its colonies but advocated modernizing the education system. Therefore, the French curriculum was compulsory at all schools in Western Thrace. Thanks to the French education system, students studying in schools in Western Thrace learned French well. Students who have passed the French education system have started to adopt French culture as well as French. The Tsanakleio Sxoli (Greek High School) building in the center of Komotini was used as an orphanage during the French administration period.
General Charpy preserved historical artifacts and cultural values belonging to Islam, Christianity and Jewish civilizations in Western Thrace, within the scope of cultural heritage. For example, the Old Mosque, located in the center of Komotini shortly after the start of the Balkan Wars, was converted into a church by the Bulgarians in 1912 and operated as a church until 1919, but the Governor Charpy officially returned the Old Mosque to the head of the foundation administration at that time (from church to mosque). The reason of General Charpy's movement lays behind the sympathy for the Ottomans and Turks. Because Charpy thought that Suleiman the Magnificent helped the French King François I and the Ottoman Empire was indebted to the Ottoman State for being with him on the dark days of France. The Muslim Youth Union was opened as a cultural center thanks to the help of Governor Charpy during his period.
In March 1920, a referendum was held in the Old Courthouse in the center of Komotini, which determined the fate of Western Thrace. The referendum was composed of Jewish delegate Muiz Karaso, Bulgarian delegate Petku Daçef, Greek delegate Nikolaos Zoidis, Turkish delegates Ortacılı Ali Bey, Tabak Halil Ağa, Osman Ağa, Hafız Galip Efendi and Hacı Yusuf. In the referendum, there were options to connect Western Thrace to Greece, Bulgaria or France. As a result of the referendum, it was decided to connect Western Thrace to Greece with the majority of votes. Later, at the San Remo Congress (between 18-26 April 1920), Western Thrace was connected to Greece. As the French forces withdrew from Western Thrace, General Charpy won the hearts of Turks and Bulgarians living in the region and gathered around the government mansion, chanting commander Charpy and long live France.
Understanding the “humanist philosophy of history”, which is the philosophy of French history, will help us to understand how and by which method the French administration will shape its future in Western Thrace. Even if France is in favor of the people of the region in the short term, there would be the possibility of imposing the French culture of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians and Jews in Western Thrace with the French education system herewith Western Thrace would not be similar to other French colonies in which "hard power policy" followed, whereas, in Western Thrace, French humanism could begin to apply the "soft power policy" with education, French literature, and French culture, which are elements of the philosophy of history. At the “San Remo Conference”, it was observed that France was not a “permanent” and “dominant” power in the region.
Armingeat (Commandant), Le commandement français en Thrace occidentale, La Revue Militaire Française-publiée avec le concours de l`etat-major de l`Armée, 49, Juillet=Septembre 1925, Librairie Militaire Berger-Levrault, Naney-Paris-Strasbourg, 289-309.
EN: [Armingeat (Commander), French command in Western Thrace, The French Military Review-published with the assistance of the General Staff of the Army, 49, July = September 1925, Berger-Levrault Military Library, Nancy-Paris-Strasbourg, 289-309.]
Bourcart Jacques, La Thrace Occidentale Administrée Par La France Octobre 1919-28 Mai 1920, Revue Politique et Parlementaire, εκδ. Fernand Faure-Edouard Julia, no. 34, t. CVI, Paris, 10/01/1921, 441-456.
EN: [Bourcart Jacques, The Western Thrace Administered By France October 1919-28 May 1920, Politic and Parliamentary Review, Ed. Fernand Faure-Edouard Julia, no. 34, t. CVI, Paris, 10/02/1921, 441-456. ]
Κώστα Γεράγα (Αναπληρωτής Γενικού Διοικητού Θράκης), Αναμνήσεις Εκ Θράκης 1920-1922, Εν Αθήναις Τυπογραφείον Εστία, Αθήνα 1925.
EN: [Kosta Geraga (Αναπληρωτής Γενικού Διοικητού Θράκης), Memories From Thrace 1920-1922, In Athens Printing House, Athens 1925.]
Kadiroğlu, Emin, EVLAD-I FATİHAN’DAN FATİHNAME, Alemdar Ofset, Gümülcine 2019.
EN: [Kadiroğlu, Emin, FATİHNAME FROM EVLAD-I FATİHAN, Alemdar Offset, Komotini 2019.]
Kemal Şevket Batıbey, Batı Trakya Türk Devleti (1919-1920), Boğaziçi Yayınları, İstanbul 2000.
EN: [Kemal Şevket Batıbey, Western Thrace Turkish State (1919-1920), Boğaziçi Publishing, Istanbul 2000.]
Ιωάννης Μ. Μπακιρτζής, Η Δυτική Θράκη, Στη Μετάβαση 1913-1920 Εκδόσεις Σταμούλης, Θεσσαλονίκη 2016.
EN: [Ioannis M. Mpakirtzis, The Western Thrace, In the Transition 1913-1920 Stamoulis Editions, Thessaloniki 2016.]
*Translated by Salih Canbaz
**Harun Halil is a PhD candidate in Istanbul University. His studies are primarily focused on contemporary history, political history, history of culture, history of Western Thrace, and history of Balkans. He has also submitted a MA thesis in Thrace University with a title '1897 Ottoman-Greek War according to greek historiography' in 2019.