A leader men would follow through thick and thin, and perhaps on the way to their deaths, without grumbling, does not come along very often. Anyone who has served in the military, even in the capacity of desk-bound “warrior,” can tell you, I’m sure, stories of officers who somehow “stood out” from the rest of the mob by sheer strength of personality and that unique chemistry that binds men in battle with unbreakable bonds.
(I once ran into one of the most unassuming men in officers’ uniform I had ever met, whom within weeks, was elevated to the position of the leader I would want in charge, if the balloon did go up. He was the only person in a staff of dozens, including officers of general rank, who did not need to utter a word for us “crew” to spring to action and begin doing what we were supposed to do. It just took a change in his facial expression for the troop to fall in and start. Quite remarkable — and unforgettable).
Gen. Nikolaos Plastiras (1881-1953) was exactly such a man. An infantry volunteer at the age of 23, Plastiras came from central Greece, growing up in the town of Trikala. His family had roots in the mountains of Agrapha and his forefathers had fought in the War of Independence under Karaiskakis, one of the Revolution’s most famous captains.
The early 1900s was the time of the Macedonian Struggle, with Greek bands of volunteers facing off Bulgarians and Turks in a muted life-and-death contest for control of the ancestral lands of Greek Macedonia, then still under Ottoman control. Plastiras, an austere young man with piercing dark eyes set in a scripturally ascetic face, joined the Macedonian fray within months of reporting for duty at his hometown’s barracks of the 5th Infantry Regiment. Soon he distinguished himself in the brutal fighting against the Bulgar komitatzi — komitat being the Bulgarian Macedonian ‘liberation’ underground organization — and acquired a reputation for his fearless conduct, his tenacity, and his tactical skill.
A sergeant in 1909, the year of a military coup that brought the Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos to the head of Greek government with the express purpose of rallying the nation at a time of great regional turmoil, Plastiras energetically participated in a movement by non-commissioned officers to reform the Army and, in 1910, entered the NCO School, then located on the island of Kerkyra (Corfu), graduating in 1912 and receiving his commission as lieutenant in the Infantry.
The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 allowed Plastiras to demonstrate the kind of elan that electrifies men and triggers the sweeping attack. At a time when battles could still be decided by the skirmish line rising and overwhelming the enemy with the bayonet, Plastiras led from the front, often riding his horse in a hail of bullets as he urged his men forward. Soon, he was the “Black Horseman,” identified as such by adoring troops because of his dark eyes and coal black mustache and eyebrows.
In 1916, with the First World War well under way, now Major Plastiras (promoted for bravery in the battlefield) sided with Venizelos who, in his dispute with King Constantine, had declared a provisional republican government in Thessaloniki and joined the Entente against the Central Powers.
With the Allies moving troops to the Macedonian Front to flank the Austro-Hungarians and attempt to take some pressure off the doomed Russians, Plastiras was again on the front line fighting his old enemies, the Bulgarians.
Before the armistice was finally declared in November 1918, Major Plastiras had become Lt. Colonel Plastiras, given command of the legendary 5/42 Evzone Regiment, and ordered to deploy in the Ukraine as part of the Allied contingent dispatched to defeat the Bolsheviks [note: evzone, literally “he who has a fine waist;” Evzones were mostly volunteers from Greek mountain regions organized into the modern equivalent of light infantry; Evzones were legendary for their endurance, tenacity, discipline under fire, and fiery determination in the attack].
The Allied Russian campaign, ill conceived and ill planned as it was, faltered quickly. The Greek troops, poorly supplied and equipped and without any support from the Allies, fought a determined rear guard action nevertheless and, upon successfully completing their evacuation from the Ukraine, were immediately ordered to Asia Minor to join the Greek Asia Minor Expeditionary Force.
The Asia Minor campaign, although it took place more than 80 years ago, has yet to find its true historian. The longest military reach ever attempted by the modern Greek state, it was conceived as a grand effort to defeat the Turk, secure the ancestral Hellenic lands of the Asia Minor littoral, and fulfill the Hellene’s yearning for a Greater Hellas encompassing all Greek populations of the Balkans and the Anatolian mass. As a military undertaking, the campaign was carried out under impossible odds and came painfully close to achieving a miracle. As a political operation, the Asia Minor grand plan witnessed the cold-blooded betrayal by Greece’s “allies” and the catastrophic collapse in defeat that destroyed Hellenism in Asia Minor and sent some 1.3 million refugees to Greece.
Colonel Plastiras was by now a legend among Greek troops, the majority of whom had been under arms continually since 1912. Plastiras correctly understood that maintaining morale among conscript men, who could only be compared to Roman legionnaires in their length of active combat service, required more than just what was contained in the rule book. Thus, he treated his evzones more like a father than a military commander. The Colonel bivouaced with his men and shared their meager rations. Discipline was unbroken thanks to the religious devotion of the ranks to his person. And Plastiras never became known for playing politics with his superiors with an eye on promotion and plushy billets. He was the proverbial “soldiers’ soldier.” One legend has it that after long marches, and as his exhausted soldiers would be making camp for the night, Plastiras would walk the perimeter to encourage the sentries and, occasionally, he himself replace a particularly drained slogger and order him to his tent to get some rest while he, the Colonel, stood guard at his post.
Once the Greek Army pushed beyond the coast, Greek columns sunk deeper and deeper into the Anatolian interior, much of which is semi-arid and, even today, thinly populated. Supplying the advancing troops became a nightmare. Ammunition, water, medicines, and victuals arrived at ever diminishing quantities to the marching columns. Meantime, the Turks under Kemal organized in depth and avoided contact to lure the Greeks farther and farther from their bases.
Plastiras was rightly concerned about long exposed flanks and the possibility of surprise attacks by foot and mounted irregulars to sap an already drained army. Refusing to succumb to spreading disillusionment over the developing impasse, he organized his men into advanced scouting platoons around what would be today described as a “strike force.” He routinely deployed the regiment in a star-like formation with the scouts forming the points and the “strike force” advancing from the center, ready to meet any major enemy force with whom the scouts had made contact. He himself rode out most often with the scouts and turned to his “strike force” at the gallop upon any sign of impending action. To the Turk, Plastiras, wiry and austere as usual, was kara peeper — ‘black pepper’ — and his disciplined Evzones were the seitan asker — “devil’s troops.”
The turning point of the campaign came with the Battle of the Sangarios River (August 23 - September 13, 1921). During three weeks of fierce fighting in the excruciating heat of the Anatolian interior, the Greek Army came close to dislodging the Turk from fortified positions and breaking through. But Greek arms had spent all their energy. In a series of costly engagements, neither of the two opponent armies could gain the advantage; but, whereas the Turks had the luxury of being able to regroup in a safe rear and re-build their stores of war, the Greeks lay exhausted in mostly open ground, their logistics in tatters, their senior commanders at a loss as to the next step, and their politicians losing the diplomatic war in the face of French and Italian machinations and growing British indifference to the Greek cause in Asia Minor.
Alone among ranking commanders, Plastiras was able to keep his men in proper order and begin maneuvering to reach defensible positions. The rest of the expeditionary force wasn’t as disciplined though. With morale sinking to new lows, the Greek Army retreated steadily until, in late August 1922, fought the last major engagement with the Turks in the Battle of Dumlubinar near the pivot city of Afyon Karahisar. Although the Greeks enjoyed numerical superiority, their confused field command, their cutoff from HQ in Smyrni, and sound Turk artillery and cavalry tactics brought about the breach of the Greek front which signaled the headlong retreat of Greek formations toward the sea.
Surrounded by this deluge, Plastiras, continually on horseback with only brief intervals for catching some sleep lying on the ground, retreated in good order. Along the way, he mustered stragglers from other formations that had disintegrated, and formed a protective cordon around thousands of Greek refugees pushing to the coast to avoid Kemal’s advancing butchers. 5/42 Evzone Regiment was one of the few Greek formations that crossed the water to land on the Greek island of Chios with its battalions and command structure intact.
The Catastrophe signaled the effective end of Plastiras’s military career and opened the chapter of his entry into politics. He would become thrice prime minister and live through some of the most turbulent times in this country’s political history. This chapter though would require a separate post.
As a military commander, Plastiras distinguished himself as a true combat soldier, never leaving the front line. He led by example. He rode ahead of his scouts, with only an adjutant as escort. He issued brief and Spartan orders. His core aim was two-fold: keep the attack going, retreat only to regroup and return to the attack. He despised “meat grinder” tactics and trained his men in using cover to advance in mutually supporting echelons. He religiously believed in his NCOs — having himself emerged from their ranks — and, correctly, saw them as the backbone of his fighting force. He treated his men like his sons and, in return, won their eternal loyalty.
When Plastiras died, penniless and mauled by Greek politics, dozens of grizzled old men, surviving riflemen of 5/42 Evzone Regiment and other veterans, filed before his casket crying like young schoolboys.
This was the best sendoff for the Black Horseman — who never forgot The Bond and kept to it to his very last breath.