The name of Lemnos has again been emblazoned on the front pages of Australia’s major newspapers recently.
This week saw the town of Lemnos, outside the north-eastern Victorian city of Shepparton, as the location of a small family-run business rising to the medical challenge facing Australia. Med-Con has been operating at Lemnos for the past 30 years and is Australia’s only mask manufacturing company. It has now massively expanded its operations producing medical masks in a 24/7 operation to meet the demand from our front-line medical workers as we face the dangers of the coronavirus. More staff are being hired and Australian Defence Force personnel have been brought into help with the expansion. The aim is to produce 30 million masks by the end of the year!
It’s nearly 10 years ago since I began my own research into why this little town in country Victoria had come into existence and be named after the Island of Lemnos in the north-eastern waters of the Aegean. The story reveals a deep and true connection between these two Lemnos’ which has now been rekindled.
One of the connections is the role Greece’s Lemnos served as the advance base for the Gallipoli campaign, its shores being the location of a major medical base to treat the thousands of sick and wounded soldiers from the battlefields, as well as being the location of three war cemeteries. Another is the soldiers from the Shepparton region who came to Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign.
Driver Thomas Maidment from Shepparton served with the 1st Australian Field Ambulance and came to Lemnos’ Anzac Rest Camp, surviving Gallipoli and the war. But two locals died during the campaign and were buried on or near Lemnos – Peechalba-born Private Frederick Sargent of the 23rd Battalion is buried at East Mudros on Lemnos and Shepparton-born Second Lieutenant John Shallberg was buried at sea near Lemnos. However, another digger from country Victoria who came to Lemnos in 1915 would play an important role in the story of Victoria’s Lemnos.
Ernie Purnell Hill was a Ballarat-born cabinet maker when he enlisted at Geelong in October 1914. He was enrolled into the 14th Battalion as a Corporal, along with a young Albert Jacka who would achieve fame as the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Both Ernie and Albert came to Lemnos in the days before the landings in April, taking part in training and preparations for the fighting that lay ahead at Gallipoli, having sailed originally from Australia aboard the aptly named troopship Ulysses. They would serve on the Peninsula until the end of the campaign in December 1915, coming to Lemnos on a number of occasions for rest or medical treatment at the medical facilities established there.
After the end of the campaign Ernie – now a Staff Sergeant – and the survivors of the Battalion returned to Lemnos for a period of rest before their departure for Egypt and France. They camped along with the rest of Colonel John Monash’s 4th Brigade on the western shores of Mudros Bay, most probably to the north of Mudros Town. Here they would spend a few weeks resting and recuperating.
They would have experienced the local surrounds – from the great bay to Mudros Town itself with its shops and its great Evangelismos Theotokou Greek Orthodox Church – where many Australians and other Allied soldiers had walked since their arrival at Lemnos in March. Ernie met up with some fellow cabinet makers from Geelong on a visit to the Australian hospitals on Lemnos. He even enjoyed Christmas celebrations on the Island, enjoying puddings from Albert Park amid the bells of the local church. When they departed Lemnos, Ernie and the Battalion left from the Egyptian Pier – so called because it was built by Egyptian labourers during the Gallipoli campaign, the remains of which lie not far from the Lemnos’ Australian Pier.
Ernie would go on to serve in France until the end of the war, serving with distinction, being awarded the Military Medal, promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and sustained a number of wounds. When he returned to Australia after the war, Ernie was an advocate for the soldier settlement program being promoted by the government of the day. He successfully lobbied for a settlement near Shepparton and that it be named Lemnos – no doubt in recognition of his fond memories of his days on the island in the Aegean where he had walked many years previously. The settlement was established in 1919-20, followed by the Lemnos Primary School seven years later.
Given the location’s fame as a fruit-growing district, it is recorded that Ernie thought that “Lemons from Lemnos” would be an excellent marketing tool for the new settlement and he would go on to be a successful orchardist at the new settlement. Amongst those Gallipoli veterans who joined Ernie at the settlement were a number who had come to Lemnos in 1915, including Private’s Hector O’Neill from Echuca, William Eliason from Bendigo and English-born former gardener Leonard Homewood from Melbourne.
A keen footballer before the war, Ernie would also be instrumental in 1928 in establishing – and playing for – the new local Australian Rules Football team in the new town, originally known as the Lemnos Ramblers Football Club – now the Shepparton Swans. During my research I came across a photograph of Ernie amongst the Rambler’s memorabilia, along with a decorative club shield. This caused much excitement when I showed the latter to locals on Lemnos in Greece, with hopes of it being a soccer club!
Serving with the militia between the wars, Ernie served as commanding officer of a number of training battalions, achieving the rank of Colonel when he retired from active service in 1947. He also served as President of the local Shepparton RSL and a Shepparton Shire Councillor for some 38 years.
And how appropriate that the region has more recently become the home for many Hellenic migrants. The fruit trees of the region would have been a welcome aroma for these Hellenes. Their surnames are listed in the records of Lemnos Primary School which still operates to this day – Damianopoulos, Giankos, Kalafatis, Michalaidis, Alabakis, Kiriacos, Pateros, Papoulis and Christou. And of course, it was not long before they had established their own Greek Orthodox Church of St George in 1965 – a year before Ernie would pass away aged 75.
I have visited Lemnos and Shepparton on a number of occasions, with Lee Tarlamis OAM and former MP John Pandazopoulos. In 2013, we attended with about 100 others the annual OXI Day service held in Shepparton which has been held since 2002, organised by Greek Ex-Servicemen’s Association in conjunction with the local Greek community, Church, RSL and City Council. The service encompassed a Church Service at St George’s Greek Orthodox Church, a wreath laying at the Cenotaph and a presentation by myself on Ernie Hill and the story of the “two Lemnos’” at the Shepparton RSL.
As I sat listening to the liturgy in the St George’s Church, I wondered what Ernie Hill and his comrades would have thought had they been walking past the Church during such a Sunday service. Would his mind have taken him back to Lemnos, with its many Churches, including the great Church at Mudros, near where he had been camped all those years ago. He would have heard the peeling of the bells on a Sunday, the distinctive sounds emanating from the Church and the smell of incense and candles. And he would be familiar with the distinctive attire of the Orthodox priests, no doubt having seen them as they walked amongst their flock through the narrow, winding streets of Mudros.
In many ways the world of the past is not so different from today. We walk the earth in the footsteps of previous generations, who felt and hurt, dreamed and lived in many respects as we do. We should remember Ernie who never forgot the Island in the Aegean that had cared for him, immortalising this memory in a little town near Shepparton.
Our appreciation goes out to Med-Con and all involved in its operations, from the local workers from Lemnos to the Australian military engaged there. Just as the name of Lemnos was known as a byword for care and healing in adversity over one hundred years ago, so again Lemnos will be known by Australians for its aid in time of medical need. Ernie Hill and the diggers of Lemnos would be proud.
♦ Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. His most recent publication is Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16. He acknowledges the assistance of Barrie Hill, Ernie’s son and local Shepparton historian Ms Elsie Brady whose publication Lemnos Looks Back – School Diamond Jubilee 1927-1987 in his research into Ernie Hill and Lemnos, Shepparton. Thanks to The Age and Shepparton News for details regarding Med-Con. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org