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From Ballarat to Mudros Bay

Ballarat in Victoria has a hidden and immortal connection to Lemnos Island in the northern Aegean

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Principal Matron Grace Margaret Wilson of 3 AGH on Lemnos in May 1915.
PHOTO: AWM Collection. ID no. A05332.

07 November 2012

The connecting thread between Ballarat - Victoria's third largest city - and Greece is long and deeply interwoven. The first Greeks who arrived in Victoria came to Ballarat to seek their fortune in the 1850s gold rush; men like Andreas Lekatsas from Ithaca and Natale Spiridon Giorgio D'Angri from Corfu. But the shared fortunes of Ballarat and Greece are even more profound.

The link reveals a rich seam of the ANZAC legend. Last week, the 30th October marked the 94th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice between the Allied powers and the defeated Ottoman Empire that ended the First World War. That historic event took place aboard a Royal Navy battleship - HMS Agamemnon in Mudros Harbour on Lemnos Island in the northern Aegean. For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in history in terms of deaths and casualties.

From a population of fewer than five million, almost 417,000 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. The Diggers who fell rest in Commonwealth War Graves across Europe and are immortalised in monuments in every town and city in Australia. 50,000 Australians fought in the Dardanelles and nearly nine thousand were killed in that campaign alone. In the northern Aegean, while we're aware of the graves at Gallipoli, few know of those on Lemnos nearby, nor the island's central role in the Dardanelles campaign.

Lemnos was the vital supply base for the Gallipoli operation - from its early occupation by the Allies in February 1915 until the evacuation of the peninsula at the end of that horrendous blood-stained year. Lemnos' strategic location - just 130 kilometres from the entrance to the Dardanelles - made it the perfect transit point, training centre, hospital and recuperation area for the troops at the Gallipoli front. Prior to the Gallipoli landings on 25th April 1915, infantry practiced landing techniques on its beaches.

Two Australian hospitals (in addition to British and Canadian hospitals) were established on the island and the staff included over 120 Australian nurses. A few brief resumes - snapshots of lives - can shed some light on this generation whose fate was enmeshed with the Gallipoli campaign. They came from every corner of Australia, and Ballarat's ANZACS give us a microcosm of that experience. Women rarely figure in any traditional telling of the ANZAC story but they played a vital role.

Nurse Isabel Curnow with the 3rd Australian General Hospital (AGH) and Nurse F. Hudson, with the 2nd Australian Stationary Hospital (ASH) were just two of the hundreds of nurses who served on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign. Isobel had trained at the Ballarat District Hospital. By the time she enlisted at the age of 34, she had worked both at Ballarat and at Melbourne's Queen Victoria hospital, specialising in operating theatre techniques. Eight days after enlisting she was on her way to the war with the newly formed 3rd AGH. After their journey across half the globe, nurses Curnow and Hudson disembarked at Turk's Head at Mudros in August 1915. On arrival, they had no tents, equipment or water, and no sanitation. The 3AGH hospital opened at West Mudros with more than a thousand beds and had expanded to 1,700 beds by the end of the campaign.

Isobel went on to serve in Egypt, France and England. She returned to Melbourne in February 1919. Her duty done, she left the AIF two months later. Nurse Hudson's 2nd ASH was first deployed to Egypt, moving to Lemnos with the 3rd AGH. By October 1915 the hospital occupied sixty large marquee-tents and had 1,200 beds and 25 nursing sisters. When the peninsula was evacuated the hospital and Nurse Hudson returned to Egypt. The experience of serving on Lemnos - despite being tempered by the realities of the war - left an indelible mark on those who spent time there.

For many it was an intensely positive experience. One nurse, Sister Donnell, wrote on leaving Lemnos on 20th January 1916: "…there are many things we will miss; the unconventional freedom…the glorious colourings of the sky, the watching of the beautiful Star of Bethlehem at night, and the harbour and the hills; but when we think of the cold, the wind, and dust, we are thankful we are not going to spend the winter there ... Goodbye Lemnos. We take many happy memories of you. I would not have liked to miss you ..." Another daughter of Ballarat, Gertrude Munro, served as a nurse in the northern Aegean in WWI.

After the Gallipoli campaign, she was sent to the Salonika front which replaced the Dardanelles as the main theatre of the war in the region. 34 year-old Gertrude, from Alfredton had enlisted in the Army Nursing Service in August 1916, sailing for Thessaloniki via Egypt. She was based at the 60th British Hospital at Hortiach. As was the case in the Dardanelles, malaria and other contracted illnesses played a huge and terrifying role in the campaign, with more than 160,000 British cases of disease and over 500,000 non-battle casualties recorded on the front.

Gertrude Munro served for two years before succumbing to pneumonia and malaria at Thessaloniki in October 1918. She is buried at the Mikra Military Cemetery in Greece's second city and was posthumously awarded the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. More than five and a half thousand soldiers who served in Australia's armed forces during WWI were born in or near Ballarat. The connection between Lemnos and the Victorian town is poignantly underscored by some of the 148 young men who fell in the line of duty and who remain on Lemnos to this day.

Corporal Charles Edward Gunn of the 21st Battalion AIF was born in Sebastopol. Charles was 22 years-old and a carpenter when he enlisted in January 1915. The 21st Battalion arrived in Egypt in June that year and landed at Anzac Cove on 7th September, but Charles Gunn never made it to that fateful shore. He died as a result of a torpedo attack days before south-west of Lemnos, by a German submarine on the HMT Southland, a former ocean liner on which he was a passenger. North of Ballarat lies the town of Learmonth, the birthplace of Donald Chisholm.

Enlisting in February 1915, Chisholm a 19-year-old farm labourer became a private in B Company, 23rd Battalion. Donald's unit was deployed to one of the most infamous parts of the Anzac front line - Lone Pine. Young Donald was killed in action on 2nd September 1915. An even younger Digger was Henry Stevens who enlisted at Ballarat in February 1915. Like Chisholm, he joined the 23rd, and like so many involved in the Gallipoli campaign, he didn't die from war wounds but from disease. Diphtheria took him less than nine months after arriving.

James Leslie White from Wendouree near Ballarat was a member of the 22nd Battalion - deployed to Gallipoli in the first week of September. He also died of diphtheria on 12th November. His unit would leave Gallipoli the next month, but John White's eternal home would be Lemnos. Dairy worker James Williams Sims was born at Kyneton. His sister said that he was "one of the first to enlist", doing so on 18th September 1914 at Lismore NSW. He was placed with the 15th Battalion in Brisbane.

Six weeks after the outbreak of war, the 15th formed part of 4th Brigade, commanded by the legendary Colonel John Monash. They landed at Anzac Cove late in the afternoon of 25th April 1915. Until August the battalion was involved in the hopeless task of establishing and defending the front line of the ANZAC beachhead. 31 year-old James was wounded in May, receiving a bullet to his left arm. He rejoined his unit a month later but contracted enteric fever. Evacuated to the ASH on Lemnos, he died on 24th July.

Private William Edward Withers was a 24-year-old labourer when he enlisted in February 1915 at Ararat. Signed up to 22nd Battalion his company was deployed at Gallipoli in the first week of September. Within days he was evacuated to ASH with pneumonia and diphtheria, passing away soon after. It's likely that both James and Withers would have been tended by Nurse Hudson. Perhaps they shared stories of more carefree days in Ballarat. The fact that the majority of Ballarat's ANZACS buried on Lemnos died from disease should come as no surprise. Disease was rife on the Gallipoli peninsula. Poor sanitation and food, a shortage of fresh water, lice and flies - all ensured that diseases were endemic amongst the soldiers on the peninsula.

Dysentery, diarrhoea and enteric fever were common. Diggers would often take part in battle while suffering from these debilitating illnesses. Between May 1915 and Jan 1916, up to 30 per cent of the AIF troop's strength were reduced due to sickness or wounds. Only twice during the whole campaign did the proportion of men being evacuated from Anzac with battle wounds - during May and the two weeks of the August offensive - exceed the proportion being taken off with some form of illness. The roll-call of the Ballarat ANZACS represent a snapshot, a handful of the tens of thousands of young lives lost in a campaign that defined Australia.

Every year the islanders of Lemnos commemorate ANZAC Day with a solemn and moving ceremony. Representatives of the Australian, British, and Greek governments attend to lay wreaths and pay their respects. The local community, including school children and church representatives take part, coming together in a profound shared experience. That enduring connection - forged in war - between Australia, Lemnos, Greece and Gallipoli remains. Our histories entwined nearly a century ago will never be undone.

This Sunday a commemorative service will be held at the Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas in Ballarat followed by a wreath-laying ceremony. We shall remember them. Jim Claven is a historian and secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. Research sources: Victorian Parliamentary Friends of Greece - Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee - ANZAC Study Tour of Lemnos and Greece Report 2012. Katrina Hedditch, Lemnos 1915 - A nursing Odyssey to Gallipoli, Press Here, Ocean Grove, 2011. Michael Tyquin, Gallipoli - An Australian Medical Perspective, Big Sky Publishing, 2012.

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