You would have to be a first-rate chef-cum-politician to successfully combine all the disparate materials that came together to support the famous Leonardopoulos-Gargalidis coup d’etat in October 1923. In the aftermath of the Asia Minor disaster, Greece was in turmoil and countless politicians and military officers assumed the mantle of a national saviour. Most of them were utterly inconsequential, but there were some remarkable individuals who sincerely believed that their actions would stop the internecine strife. To that end, they were willing to cooperate with bosom friends and implacable enemies.
The central characters
Major General Georgios Leonardopoulos served with distinction in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and joined the Provisional Government of National Defence in 1916. He earned a reputation as a conscientious and educated officer, so he was often selected by Eleftherios Venizelos for important posts before and during the Asia Minor campaign. Major General Panagiotis Gargalidis had followed a similar professional path, but he had also received the Croix de Guerre 1914–1918 with a gilt star for his conduct on the Macedonian front against the Germans and the Bulgarians in September 1918. Both officers joined the 11 September 1922 Revolution that forced King Constantine to resign and leave the country. Nevertheless, within a few months, they were both to lead a coup against the very government they helped establish in the aftermath of the Asia Minor catastrophe.
Colonels in the kitchen
Both Leonardopoulos and Gargalidis felt aggrieved and neglected by the revolutionary government. They also believed that Nikolaos Plastiras could not control the army and condemned his authoritarianism. In their attempt to force the government to resign, they collaborated with sidelined anti-Venizelist or neutral officers, Venizelist officers who had lost their jobs because of Theodoros Pangalos’ desire to promote his own people, as well as royalists worried about the possibility of abolishing the monarchy. But most influential of all were the so-called “colonels”, a group of extreme monarchists who wished to crush Venizelos and his supporters.
The late bird catches no worm
The coup was launched in the early hours of 22 October 1923. From the beginning, however, it was obvious that the rebels were not properly prepared. Although their forces easily prevailed in the provinces (especially in the Peloponnese), they were slow to move against the capital and other major urban centres (Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Larissa). The government in Athens was thus able to organize its counterattack. It declared martial law, banned the circulation of anti-Venizelist newspapers and placed Theodoros Pangalos in charge of government military forces. When, after five days, the rebels decided to march against Athens it was now too late. Pangalos encircled them near Corinth (which he even threatened to bombard) and after a brief skirmish forced them to lay down their arms.
At the end of the month, attention turned to the “peaceful little town” of Eleusis. The government had selected the small elementary school with “its large enclosure, its sparse trees, its naive and unobtrusive design” as the site for the trial of the coup d’état leaders. The rebels were imprisoned on two steamboats (Kronos and Parnassos) that brought them to Eleusis on a daily basis during the trial. Because they were too large for the small harbour, the prisoners boarded a smaller tender that brought them ashore. Leonardopoulos and Gargalidis boarded a car that drove them to the school, while the other 93 defendants made their way on foot, under the eyes of the local residents who lined the streets and the windows along the way.
Standing room only
The courtroom was to the right of the school’s entrance and the furnishings consisted of benches for the judges, three desks (on the right) for journalists, and three on the left for about thirty lawyers. Seats for the accused were arranged in the middle of the room, and there were also some seats reserved for family members and the general public. The room was illuminated with three oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. From the beginning, though, it was obvious that there was insufficient space available. Approximately twenty defendants and almost all the spectators were forced to remain in the courtyard. There they were photographed by Petros Poulides; his fascinating photographs are preserved in the archive of ERT.
15 minutes of fame
The trial lasted for ten days and during that time Eleusis was transformed into a major city. Local cafes were packed with dozens of defence attorneys, Athenian and provincial press reporters, the relatives of the accused and the soldiers guarding them. The downtown dirt roads were jammed with cars, while the restaurant owners made a killing serving the exquisite fish of the Saronic Gulf (including the famous green mullet). The only problem seemed to be the heavy smoke from the industrial chimneys that floated like a fog across the bay waters and obscured the approach of the vessels carrying the indicted officers.
The sentences handed down by the military court were (as expected) severe. Leonardopoulos and Gargalidis were condemned to death (though eventually acquitted), while the remaining defendants received lesser sentences. It took many years for the anti-Venizelist and pro-royalist faction to recover from the blow, although the country continued to suffer for many years from the ambitions of its military leaders.