What is the spell that Greece casts during times of war that instills passions in men of letters and draws them to her, as the moth is drawn to the candle’s hypnotic flame? Lord Byron (1788-1824) is, of course, the most well-known Romantic poet and Philhellene who fought and died for Greece. He is beloved by the country he adopted, and as evidence of this, Byron’s heart is said to be buried in Messolonghi, Greece, where he died.
Centuries after Lord Byron, many other men of letters came to fight for Greece in monumental military events in World War II. Perhaps they were inspired by the poet, and perhaps not. As Lord Byron had done before them, they put their lives on the line for Greece. They were men such as the scholar and historian Christopher “Monty” Woodhouse, authors Xan Fielding, W. Stanley Moss, and Patrick Leigh Fermor, archaeologist John Pendelbury, and author and poet George Psychoundakis (also known as “the Cretan Runner”) well-known intellectuals of their time who valiantly fought the Germans. Their brave deeds became legendary and were captured in novels and on film, and just as Greece remembered the great Romantic poet and Philhellene, these World War II heroes are honored during annual memorial services in Crete.
Between Lord Byron and the luminaries named above was another man of letters, the Honorable George Horton, who served with distinction as Counsel General for the United States in the near East from 1911 to 1922. A journalist, novelist, and literary critic before he joined government service, Horton is credited with personally saving hundreds of lives during the destruction of the ancient city of Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor in 1922.
In his early career, Horton was a journalist for The Chicago Herald and wrote poetry and novels as he gained recognition as a major critic and literary figure. But Fate had another destiny in mind for the young writer, who became perhaps the most famous eyewitness of his time to what some have called one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. Horton wrote The Blight of Asia, the poignant chronicle of the burning of Smyrna, a City once known as “the Pearl of the Orient.” This act marked the end of a two-thousand-year Christian presence in Asia Minor. In the tradition of remembering Lord Byron and the heroes of World War II, the Greek government honored Horton with a marble statue in Plateia in Nea Smyrna, Athens, near the statue of Chrysostom, and awarded him The Order of the Saviour.
This is Horton’s story. “The Great Catastrophe” began on September 9, 1922 when the typical morning calm in Smyrna was violated by the sounds of galloping horses, foreshadowing the tragedy that would unfold. Thunderous sounds of hoofs pounding the earth punctuated the air, accompanied by terrified screams.
The Turkish cavalry, led by Mustapha Khemal, had entered the City. As the troops rode up and down the quay, people fled, seeking shelter in the American Embassy, the Theatre de Smyrna, Red Cross, various missionaries and schools, and the YMCA and YWCA. But by evening the inevitable looting, killing, and raping began. On September 11 the City was set ablaze, (Horton pages 6 and 7) perpetrating a tragedy that Horton called “Miltonian..” In his role as America’s Counsel General, Horton risked his life to evacuate as many American and Greek men, women, and children as he could, and saved many others, regardless of nationality.
In her award-winning book. Smyrna 1922, Marjorie Housepian Dobkin describes the scene on the quay during the inferno:
“With exits to the city blocked off by Turkish troops, nearly half a million human beings packed in an area a mile and a half long and no more than one hundred feet wide were trapped between the fire and the sea…..(Dobkin, p. 171) On the bridge of the liner Bavarian, grown men wept as they watched the scene. A British businessman could see “the unfortunate wretches thirteen or fourteen deep swaying in the sweltering heat. With the very parcels in their arms actually on fire, men, women, and children struggled to get free, throwing themselves where possible into the water, or swaying this way and that, more dead than alive. The density of the crowd for a time was such that the dead remained standing, supported by the living.” She added that one survivor compared the
scene to The Last Days of Pompeii. (Dobkin p. 170)
Estimates vary on how many Greeks and Armenians were killed or exiled, but before the inferno, the population of Smyrna was said to be 500,000 and include Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Turks, Italians, French, British, and others. Of this number, Horton estimated that there were approximately 300 American nationals. (Horton, p. 65) In The Blight of Asia, Horton says “the lowest estimate of lives lost given by the refugees places the total at 120,000,” (Horton, p. 112) but Marjorie Dobkin quotes Admiral Mark L. Bristol, an American who was Chairman of the Inter-Allied Commission of Inquiry on the Smyrna Landings, as saying the number of deaths “due to killings, fire, and execution…probably does not exceed 2,000.” Dobkin says Bristol’s figure has gone down as “the historical verdict,” but adds that Horton’s estimate “makes more sense” because Smyrna was populated by “roughly 400,000 Ottoman Christians (native Smyrneans plus refugees) during the days immediately preceding the fire,” and those unaccounted for by October 1 numbered “at least 190,000.” But, Dobkin concludes, “no one will ever know how many had perished.” (Dobkin p. 169).
It is mainly Turks who live there now and the jewel that was once called Smyrna is now Ismir.
Horton believed the tragedy could have been averted. In early September when the Greek army began its retreat, he cabled Admiral Bristol and begged him “in
the interests of humanity and for the safety of American interests,” to mediate with the Angora government. He wanted amnesty sufficient to allow the Greek forces to evacuate. “Amnesty will avoid possible destruction of Smyrna,” he declared, but the State Department responded with an unequivocal “No.” (Dobkin p. 111)
Dobkin says that since the first days of September, “Horton’s days and nights had been an endless round of conferences, interviews, and errands of mercy.” She added that these errands of mercy “were to become legendary among Greeks,” adding that he gathered hundreds of families at the Point and scoured the harbor to beg or buy their passage, “often as his own expense.” (Dobkin, p. 126)
It is obvious that Dobkin has great admiration for Horton and she describes his poignant role in this catastrophe:
“To those who knew the man it was natural that others would turn to him in time of crisis. George Horton was something of an anomaly among foreign officials in Smyrna. Unlike the majority, who had arrived since the end of the war, he had worked in the area for thirty years and was thoroughly familiar with its history. At a time when Americans and Englishmen were notoriously inept at foreign languages, he spoke fluent French, Greek, German, Italian, and Turkish. Virtually every segment of the Smyrna population affirmed Horton’s sensitivity
to its point of view, and in reports that were models of clarity he had detailed the attitudes of these respective groups for Admiral Bristol and the experts at the State Department. Even Bristol conceded that the man’s views on the Greco- Turkish question were ‘plainly fair and square.’” (Dobkin p. 124)
It should be noted that as the City burned, the harbor was filled with battle ships representing the American and Allied powers, specifically, the United States, Great Britain, Italy, France, and Japan. Except for the Japanese, none of these ships would take on any of the terrified victims because they were under orders to maintain neutrality. Horton, who rescued scores of Americans and others (Greeks, Armenians and Jews) by putting them on American ships before the fire, described the vessels as resting “impotently” in the waters as a tragedy unfolded that made him “ashamed to be a member of the human race.”
So how did this journalist, poet, and distinguished “Man of Letters” come to play such a pivotal role in one of the greatest catastrophes of our time, an event that Horton himself compared only to the destruction of Carthage? Dobkin explains that Horton’s appointment to the Foreign Service had been “whimsical.” She points out that he was a classics scholar, successful poet, and literary critic and was thirty-four when Fate intervened. In his role as an editorial writer for The Chicago Herald, he penned a number of editorials in support of Grover Cleveland; the President was pleased and offered Horton a consular post in Berlin. Dobkin explains that he refused this and asked for one in Greece; in 1893
he was appointed Consul to Athens; in 1909 he was transferred to Salonika and in 19ll he was appointed US Consul at Smyrna. (Dobkin, p. 124). Dobkin says that in 1927, Horton wrote, “I saw no connection between such editorials and the ability to fill a consular post intelligently, nor do I now.” (Dobkin, p. 124).
Nancy Horton is Mr. Horton’s daughter and lives in Voula, Greece and Washington, D.C., and is an accomplished, award-winning poet who has given poetry readings and lectures internationally. Ms. Horton says her father was very witty and when she was a child, he sang nursery rhymes to her in Latin. She remembers him as being a very spontaneous and creative person and as someone who would always champion the underdog. His first collection of poetry was entitled, “Songs of the Lowly and Other Poems,” and they show sympathy for the working man and the unemployed. Other themes in his poetry include the love of Greece, the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the tension between war and the belief in a supreme being. His most famous poem is “The Martyred City,” about the burning of Smyrna.
Horton wrote eight novels that were in the romance/adventure genre, and six were set in Greece. The novels are entitled, Constantine, A Fair Brigand, Like Another Helen, The Tempting of Father Anthony, The Long Straight Road, The Monk’s Treasure, The Edge of Hazard, and Miss Schuyler’s Alias. He published an important book on Greek mythology called In Argolis, a work that the great literary critic, William Dean Howells, called “a classic.” Other critics praised
Horton’s work and favorable reviews were forthcoming after the publication of each book. Today. there are three unpublished manuscripts, one unpublished short story, and one unpublished play. His daughter is currently talking with a publisher about the possibility of having selected works re-printed.
Nancy Horton says Smyrna seems to have been her father’s destiny and that it began when he was a small boy whose father read to him passages from “The Book of Revelation” and other reading from the Bible “almost daily.” She says that as a child he was mesmerized by the fact that Smyrna was called “The last of the Seven Cities” and “the site of the original seven churches of the Revelation of St. John the Divine.” “This made a profound impression on him and haunted him all of his life,” Ms. Horton says. “In fact,” she adds, “it seems to run like a thread though his life and work.”
“When my father was first appointed Consul to Smyrna in 1911, he said it had long been ‘the Mecca of his ambitions.’” “I think it was almost inevitable that he should be there during the death of that City,” she muses, “as it is clear to me that he had a mystical bond with Smyrna.”
Ms. Horton explains that in so many of her father’s poems and other writings his themes are the struggle between greed and the true meaning of Christianity within the context of the Revelation or Apocalypse. She said he saw Smyrna, the
last of the seven churches he first learned about in his childhood, as the ultimate victim that was “betrayed through the connivance of the great Christian nations.”
When asked what other forces drew him to Smyrna, Ms. Horton responds that he was enthralled with the Greek language and with Homer, whom he considered a native of Smyrna and to whom he referred as a “Smyrniote” in his writings. He became impatient with archaeologists who speculated on other places where Homer could have been born and proclaimed, “I am inclined to accept the statement that Homer was born in Smyrna and be done with it.” He added, “As in religion, one must have a modicum of faith in these matters.”
Horton was also an admirer of the odes of Sappho, Greece’s most famous lyric poet who was born on Lesbos, an island close to Asia Minor. His favorite work was Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite,” a poem that he said had “unquenchable fire and beauty.”
In his time, Horton was most likely the most passionate Philhellene in America. In 1907 he traveled throughout the country under the auspices of the Archeological Institute of America giving twenty lectures in three months on Greek culture and society. He lectured on Greek life as he found it in the villages and entertained his audiences with stories of folk lore, lullabies, art, music, and humor. At each talk he was given a gift by Greeks, and one of his favorites was a silver living cup filled with flowers and inscribed “to George Horton from Hellenes Americans.”
The evenings were very special and at most events, the intellectual and socially elite Greeks mingled with the common man; many times the night would end with Horton dancing arm over arm with other men in a Greek dance.
Horton had great respect for the immigrants and made it a point to extol their virtues and the many contributions they made to American life. This theme is reflected in some of his poetry, especially “Songs of the Lowly.”
When Horton, the man who was destined to be there at the destruction of the last of the seven cities, spoke to the Greek audiences he grew to love in America, he spoke not as the Consul General who was an eyewitness to history, but as a poet. His intuition told him that it was only through poetry that the powerful emotions he experienced in Smyrna could be conveyed. So he would end his talk with a poem, “The Martyred City” and then, in a soft voice, he simply recited these names:
Ephesus Sardis Philadelphia Thyatiha Laodicea Pergamos Smyrna.
These are the seven cities in Asia Minor that are no more, and Smyrna was the last to fall. By quietly reciting the names of the seven cities at the end of his lecture, and by speaking with the voice of a poet, this remarkable “Man of Letters” conveyed the profound meaning of “The Great Catastrophe”–a tragedy so horrific that most witnesses and victims found it almost impossible to describe. His soft chant and slow recitation of the names of seven cities became the dignified, muffled sob of a poet lamenting the burning of Smyrna, “The Martyred City,” and the end of the Christian presence in Asia Minor.