There is an arresting photograph in historian and long-time Neos Kosmos contributor, Jim Claven’s recently published book ‘Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed’ that encapsulates the spirit of the work like no other. On page 20, we are presented with a pencil drawing of a youth which evokes the classical aesthetics of ancient perfection. A young nude Apollo gazes into space pensively. This is no languid erotic god however. The sketch is fraught with tension, as the youth, his muscles strained, grasps at his lower leg, as if to restrain himself from further action. He is right to do so. Two years later, this Apollo, god of the sun and of music will be cut down in his prime, near Anzac Cove, at Gallipoli, in the darkness and dissonance of war.
Peter Rados, of Ortaköy, an ethnic Greek who fled the Ottoman Empire and migrated to Australia, was immortalised in his prime by Olive Muriel Pink, in Sydney, in 1913. The notation on the sketch, which is the only likeness we have of this obscure historical figure, currently held by the University of Tasmania Library is brutally laconic: “A Greek who enlisted and was killed on Gallipoli.” He is in fact the only ethnic Greek digger to be killed at Gallipoli and yet he exists outside the Greek-Australian and broader Australian narratives that unfold themselves around this seminal point in the foundation of the Australian identity. In his ground-breaking book, Claven likens Peter Rados to the homeric Protesilaus, the first of the Greek warriors to land upon the shores of Troy, not so far away from Gallipoli, and in fulfilment of ancient prophecy, the first to die. There is a certain amount of poignant irony in Claven’s parallel. Protesilaus achieved lasting glory, and he was so missed by his wife, Laodameia, that the gods, taking pity on her, brought him up from Hades for her to behold one last time. Peter Rados, in contrast, was not missed. He was forgotten, only for his image to be retrieved from the shores of Lethe one hundred years after his death and brought before us to behold, through the researches of Claven. It remains to be seen whether he will become, like Protelisaus before him, a cult figure or an object of veneration by a Greek Australian community eager to gain purchase in Australia’s chief national myth. Regardless, he constitutes a compelling metaphor for the absence of a multiplicity of perspectives in mainstream conceptions of Gallipoli.
The prevailing myth weaves itself around the warp and the weft of a framework that would see the valiant ANZAC’s fighting, far from their own shores, to keep the world free and safe, against a tough but magnanimous foe, the Ottomans. In this polarised conception of the conflict, there has been afforded little room for the stories of the peoples whose lives were affected by the ANZAC’s campaign. In particular, there has been scant mention anywhere of the ethnic Greek villages in Gallipoli that were cleansed in order for the Ottomans to fortify the Peninsula and there has also been little mention of Lemnos, which was where ANZAC troops practised their Gallipoli landing, where the Allied hospitals were established and where sick or injured troops were returned to convalesce. It is also widely believed that the iconic Simpson’s donkey came from Lemnos. As historian Dr Peter Ewer recently remarked, one simply cannot understand the Gallipoli campaign in its entirety, without appreciating the central role played in it by the island of Lemnos. It is this lacuna in the narrative, that Claven’s recently published book, seeks to fill.
The lavish publication, both a detailed narrative and pictorial history, evokes wartime Lemnos by means of a vast array of photographs garnered by Claven from a large number of local and overseas sources. He has spent countless hours performing fieldwork on the island itself, hunted down the descendants of locals who assisted ANZAC soldiers and scoured the diaries and service records of soldiers who were billeted on the island. What emerges in the ensuing text is a sensitive account, delivered in firm and muscular prose, devoid of triumphalism or the glorification of war, of a newly liberated from the Ottomans island, already struggling to find its own sense of identity (historian Peter Charamis of Rutgers University, who was born on Lemnos, recounts that when the island was liberated in 1912, some of the island children ran to see what Greek soldiers looked like.
“What are you looking at?” one of the soldiers asked.
“At Hellenes,” the children replied.
“Are you not Hellenes yourselves?” the soldier retorted.
“No, we are Romans,” the children replied, tellingly, enmeshed in the throes of the National Schism that saw Greece divided between a royalist administration in the south which wanted no part in the war and the Venizelists in the north who actively pursued involvement on the side of the Allies, still managing to embrace, assist and establish lasting relationships with the 50,000 Australian soldiers that passed through Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign.
‘Lemnos and Gallipoli Revealed’, exhibits a large number of important and rare images that capture the fraternisation between the two peoples but most importantly, offer us a window into the social history of this most important to the history of Gallipoli, island. By focusing on the personal stories of individual soldiers, such as Corporal George Knight of Albert Park who died in Lemnos, as well as accounts of the island recorded by Australian nurses serving there selflessly, we gain a unique insight into both the horror of the campaign but also the important role Lemnos played as a psychological and physical place of sanctuary for ANZAC soldiers. For the period of the campaign, it became their home away from home and the people of Lemnos became their family.
The remnants of this association are enduring. One hundred and forty eight Australian soldiers lie buried in the soil of Lemnos. The geography of the island includes an Anzac Street and an Australian Pier along with an Australia monument, a counterpart to the Lemnos memorial that can be found in the city of Port Philip, Melbourne. All of these testify to the forging of a bond between Greeks and Australians that predates the post-Second World War phenomenon of mass migration to Australia and even the ties created through fighting side by side against the Axis in mainland Greece and Crete.
This is the enduring value of Claven’s magisterial ‘Lemnos and Gallipoli Revealed’. Through its masterly focus both on the interaction and the very human stories of ANZACs and locals on Lemnos, as well as the significance of the island in general in the broader campaign, Claven postulates a truly multicultural approach to the Australian national narrative from its very inception, one which affords Lemnos an indisputable place both in the Gallipoli and broader Australian identity discourse. The stories of Lemnos, our stories, are Australian stories and he presents them accordingly.
Gallipoli looms large in the national myths of Greeks and Australians. According to legend, the Nymphs planted elms on the tomb of Protesilaus on Gallipoli, elms that grew to a size almost commensurate with the size of the importance of Gallipoli itself to modern Australia. When their topmost branches saw far off the ruins of Troy, they immediately withered, so great still was the bitterness of the hero buried below, so great was the catastrophe visited upon the land by war. Protesilaus, and our own recently exhumed hero Peter Rados, would be consoled by these epic verses, by first century poet, Antiphilus of Byzantium:
“a long age shall sing your praises,
Of the destined dead at Troy the first;
Your tomb with thick-foliaged elms they covered,
The nymphs, across the water from hated Ilion.
Trees full of anger; and whenever that wall they see,
Of Troy, the leaves in their upper crown wither and fall.
So great in the heroes was the bitterness then, some of which still
Remembers, hostile, in the soulless upper branches.”
With Jim Claven’s remarkable ‘Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed’ as our guide, we will maintain out anger and bitterness at the depravity and soullessness of war, but will continue to sing the praises of the valiant ANZACs, Australian nurses and their Lemnian companions for long ages to come.
* Purchase ‘Lemnos and Gallipoli Revealed’ by Jim Claven by contacting the President of the Lemnos Gallipolis Commemorative Committee Lee Tarlamis OAM by email on email@example.com or by calling 0411 553 009. The book is also available for sale at the Shrine of Remembrance.