There are many aspects of the Hellenic link to the Gallipoli campaign. And one of the least known is that of the Hellenic volunteers from Asia Minor who served with the Allies on the Helles front at Gallipoli for nearly three months before going on to the Salonika Front.
The story of these Hellenes complements that of Peter Rados, one of their Asia Minor compatriots. It is a few years since I came across Peter’s story. Peter was a young migrant who came to Australia from Artaky on the coast of the Sea of Marmara in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. Joining up, Peter came to Lemnos as an Anzac, took part in the landings on 25 April and was sadly killed in May. I have visited his grave at Ari Burnu Cemetery, not far from where he landed – and not many miles from the land of his birth. Peter is the sole Hellenic Anzac to serve and die during the Gallipoli Campaign.
We also know of the Hellenes in the Ottoman forces who deserted to the Allies during the campaign, volunteering to serve as guides and interpreters. The coming of the war saw the Ottoman authorities expel the Hellenes from the Peninsula, from their centuries old villages and towns. The Hellenic histroy of the region soon made an impression on the Allied soldiers, with some unearthing classical remains when they dug their trenches, prompting the French to launch formal archaeological excavations. But the war would devastate the villages of the Peninsula. A photograph of a devastated streetscape in post-war Krithia, taken by Australian photographer George Wilkins in 1919, is testimony to this destruction.
Many would also be aware of the involvement of Cretan volunteers under French command and led by Lieutenant Pavlos Gyparos in the Gallipoli campaign. Having previously attacked Ottoman entrenchments along the Thracian coast, 350 of the volunteers conducted a raid near Karachale, on the Gulf of Saros, on 6 August. Landed by British warships, the Cretans successfully attacked Ottoman positions four kilometers inland, destroying military facilities, inflicting casualties and re-embarking the following night with the loss of between 31 and 38 killed and wounded. In the words of the Allied commander at Gallipoli, Sir Ian Hamilton, the attack had been “entirely successful.”
GREEKS IN THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION
But it is a few years ago that I came across a unique photograph in a collection of photographs held within the State Library of Victoria’s extensive First World War collection.
The Australian who took or collected the photograph is not identified. It is part of an album of photographs, the main portion of which capture the visit of the unknown Australian to the village of Romanou and surrounding villages on the eastern shores of Lemnos’ Mudros Bay. These images are touching, depicting local children playing in the town square, women returning home riding donkeys, local churches and schools. These are the only photographs of the villages concerned amongst Australia’s Lemnos archive.
But the most important for me was one photograph entitled ‘Greek recruits for French Foreign Legion, training at Lemnos’. As far as my research has determined, this is the sole photograph in which some of the over 1,000 Hellenes from Asia Minor who volunteered to serve with the Allies at Gallipoli are clearly identified by the photographer who took it.
Unlike the Cretan volunteers who were dressed in non-military clothing to confuse the enemy during their earlier raid, these Hellenic volunteers were attached to the French Foreign Legion and are recorded as being dressed and equipped as such. There are also other photos of similarly dressed troops on Lemnos held in the National Library of France.
They formed a battalion of some 1,100 men led by Pantelis Karasevdas. It is likely that Pantelis was a military officer and former sporting shooter who took part in the 1896 Olympics in Athens. He served in the Balkan Wars and had been seriously wounded on Samos. A prominent supporter of Venizelos, he would go on to take part in the Greek resistance during the Second World War. I have been unable to determine from where the volunteers were sourced, but no doubt many would have come from the surrounding region, including the Gallipoli Peninsula.
The recruits were first billeted on Lemnos – no doubt where they were photographed marching by our unknown Australian photographer – before being transferred to the neighbouring island of Tenedos, which had also been occupied by the Allies during the Gallipoli campaign. While on Lemnos, these Hellenes from Asia Minor were noticed by at least one Australian soldier – Corporal Hedley Kitchin of the 6th Battalion – who wrote in his diary on Thursday 15 April of the presence on the island of “a Greek branch of the Foreign Legion of Frontiersmen.”
French military records state that some 440 of these volunteers led by Karasevdas were landed at Sedd el Bahr near Cape Helles on the Peninsula on 23 July, where they became the 13th and 14th Companies of the 1st Regiment de marche d’Afrique. A photograph held in the Imperial War Museum in London appears to depict one of these Hellenes at Sedd el Bahr.
In landing here, these young Hellenes were following in the footsteps of the warriors of Agamemnon’s army headed to besiege Tory. Homer writes that it was at Cape Helles that the leader of the Thessaly contingent – the warrior Protesilaus – landed and was killed – the first to die in that famous campaign. The Australian historian Charles Bean wrote that after the war many Greek visitors came “in crowds” to visit his tomb.
THE GRAVES OF THE HELLENIC VOLUNTEERS
During their service on the Helles front, these volunteers would have witnessed or taken part in some of the fiercest engagements of the whole campaign. The bloody fights over the Kereves Deves sector saw one of its ravines named by the French the Ravin de la Mort. A few years ago, I attended the French commemorative service at the French War Cemetery and Memorial at Morto Bay. Here are the graves of over 3,200 individual soldiers and four ossuaries containing the bones of 12,000 unidentifiable soldiers. Some of the Hellenic volunteers from Asia Minor may be buried here.
I have been unable to locate the service records of the Hellenes from Asia Minor at Helles. But no doubt they would have suffered the fate of their French comrades, who fought many battles and sustained many casualties here. After three months at Helles, the Hellenes were transferred to the Salonika Front in October 1915. For their service with the French Foreign Legion, these Hellenes may have been awarded the French Dardanelles medal – a campaign for which the British and Australian authorities would issue no medal.
Standing at Cape Helles where these Hellenes walked, I look across the waters at the mouth of the Dardanelles and the northern Aegean beyond. It was in these waters in 1912-13 that the great naval battles of Elli and Lemnos had been fought, defeating the Ottoman Navy and confirming the liberation of Lemnos, Imbros and Tenedos. I wonder whether these young men from Asia Minor – some possibly from the Gallipoli Peninsula itself – would have been reminded of their mythic predecessor Protesilaus or the mighty battle that took place barely two years earlier.
And finally, after the war had come to an end, many of the Hellenes of the Peninsula returned to their homeland to play a final and poignant role in the Gallipoli story. For at the end of WW1 the Venizelos Greek government supported the return of the original population to their villages and towns, funds being made available to build new homes.
What is less known is that many of these returning Hellenes were engaged by the Allied Imperial War Graves Commission to work on the construction of the new war cemeteries, headstones and memorials that began to be constructed across the former battlefields of the Peninsula. Local stone from the quarry north of Kelia Bay near Maidos was used for the construction of the cemeteries, a stone identical to that of the walls of nearby Troy. As one visitor to the Peninsula on a pilgrimage in these immediate post-war years recorded, the Hellenes of Asia Minor were “good masons” and had “inherited something of the engineering and building skill of their ancestors.”
Some of these cemeteries and grave stones stand not far from Krithia, such as that at Lancashire Landing Cemetery, where lies the grave of one Kostas Stellianos, a member of the Greek Labour Corps, killed at the Helles front, Gallipoli on 17 November 1915. The Asia Minor catastrophe would see the Hellenes of Gallipoli and across Asia Minor be forced again to flee their homes. But the Hellenic handiwork on the great cemeteries of Gallipoli would remain.
These are just some of the stories of the Hellenes of Asia Minor and their role in the Anzac story. It deserves to be told and remembered by all interested in the wider Hellenic link to Anzac.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, commemorative tour guide and Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He is currently writing a new book – Lemnos and Gallipoli – which will be available in early 2019. He is also working with Melbourne’s Pontiaki Estia and Merimna of Pontian Ladies Society to erect a major new memorial in Ballarat to Major George Treloar who assisted over 100,000 Asia Minor refugees settle in Greece after WW1.
Jim can be contacted via email firstname.lastname@example.org