Two years ago my research revealed the location of the Australian Pier on Lemnos, a pier that was originally erected by Australian soldiers in 1915 and which stands to this day. Today I write of my recent discovery of another probable physical legacy of the Australian presence on Lemnos – the story of the mysterious beacon of Lemnos and its Australian connection.
You only have to gaze across Lemnos’ great Mudros Bay to see this conspicuous structure which stands near the end of the famous Turks Head Peninsula which juts into the Bay, separating its inner and outer harbours. This conical stone structure can be seen clearly from the shores of the Bay, a silent sentinel whose story remains to be told.
Approaching the structure, one is immediately struck by its size and prominent location, giving it a vantage point that can be seen by any vessel wanting to enter or leave the Bay. Bracing myself against the strong winds that sweep the Bay and ascending its rudimentary stairs to the flat top of the structure, I was impressed by the view. But one thing missing is any indication of its origins, there is no plaque or markers to reveal its story.
There are many rumours and suggestions as to its origins. Some say it was constructed during the Gallipoli campaign by the Egyptian labourers who were brought to the Island as part of the Allied forces to assist in the transformation of the Island into a military base. They are captured in photographs from the time, building the roads and the light railway that would crisscross the Peninsula to improve the transport services needed there. The rumour is that they built the structure as a reminder of the great pyramids of Egypt. But this theory lacks any archival evidence amongst the many photographs, letters, diaries and memoirs from the time.
Another theory is that it was not built during the Gallipoli campaign at all, but some years later. This theory proposes that it was erected by the White Russian refugees who came to Lemnos in 1920-21 following their defeat in the Russian Civil War. These soldiers and their camp followers were indeed on Lemnos at this time as is documented in both photographs and in the graves of their dead at both East Mudros Military Cemetery and the White Russian Cemetery on the Peninsula. The Peninsula was also the location of one of their two camps on the Island. It is said that they erected it as a memorial to their dead, the structure originally being topped with a white marble cross. Individual members of the White Russian refugee community are said to have brought the stones to form the structure.
The trouble with this theory is that there is also a decided lack of evidence. To date I have been unable to find any reference to the beacon in the few detailed academic studies of their presence on Lemnos. That of the historian Bruno Bagni makes no reference to the erection of the structure, despite his exhaustive use of contemporary archives. And while there are many photographs of the White Russians on Lemnos these contain none showing their erection or holding memorial services at the structure. And if they did build it why is there no marker or dedication and why would they erect the memorial at this isolated and windswept location, many hundreds of metres from their cemetery?
What evidence we do have points to another solution to the mystery of the structure. As a historian of the Allied presence on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign I have searched in the various archival evidence of that campaign to solve this mystery.
British archives reveal that a large beacon was indeed located at this spot during the Gallipoli campaign. It is identified as a “conspicuous” beacon on the most detailed naval map from the time, that created by the British Royal Navy in 1916 and located in the British Library. This would appear to undermine the White Russian Memorial theory.
But who might have erected the structure? It would seem from the evidence held in Australian archives that this was most probably Australian engineers. The 1st Australian Field Engineers Company was one of the first military engineering units to land on Lemnos, having done so in early March 1915. It was these troops that erected the Australian Pier. Reading their war diary held in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra reveals that on 21 March 1915 they are recorded as having “erected shore beacons.” And further to this one of their soldiers – Lance Corporal William Turnley – wrote after the war that these “navigation posts” were erected “around the harbour.”
Looking at the structure today, with its composition of rough stone cemented together, no doubt having been supported by some sort of wooden formwork, I am struck by the similarity in construction and composition to the piers erected by these and other Allied troops on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign.
The erection of a navigational post or beacon at this location is obvious. The waters of Mudros Bay are dotted with small islands, islets and dangerous shoals. A number of naval vessels are recorded as having ran aground here during the campaign, including Australia’s famous AE2 submarine which ran aground in the days prior to the landings at Anzac Cove. Soldiers’ and sailors’ diaries and memoirs contain references to the presence of navigational beacons and other naval aids to assist vessels in their passage into and through Mudros Bay. The need for a marker, clearly visible from the sea, identifying and confirming the end of the Turks Head Peninsula would have been an essential aid to navigation for the hundreds of vessels plying its waters.
I have also viewed many of the hundreds if not thousands of photographs taken by Australian and other Allied service personnel during their time on Lemnos. Many of these depict the very peninsula on which the structure is located. As the main location of Allied military hospitals on Lemnos from August 1915 until January 1916 – along with other ancillary medical and engineering facilities, as well as being home to many of the piers through which Allied soldiers arrived and departed Lemnos throughout the campaign – this area was one of the most photographed locations on Lemnos during the campaign.
One of those who took many of these photographs was Lance Corporal Albert Savage, an orderly with the 3rd Australian General Hospital which was based here. The background of one of his photographs covers the area where the structure now stands. But the photograph is tantalisingly inconclusive. Is there a hint of the top of the structure emerging from above the hill in the distance? It could be there, obscured by the poor resolution of the image or hidden from view due to its lower elevation when compared to my own modern photograph.
What we do know for certain is that this location was the site of the navigational beacon which guided the Allied ships with their soldiers and precious cargoes in and out of Mudros Bay – and that this beacon was most probably erected by Australian engineers. This Australian connection with Lemnos’ navigational beacons would foreshadow this location’s important part in the naval history of Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign, including that of Australia.
It was passed this beacon that Australia’s AE2 submarine sailed in 1915, it witnessed the arrival of the men of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train – naval engineers who were the last Australians to depart Gallipoli at the end of the campaign – who would set up camp on Lemnos (one of whose soldiers is buried on Lemnos) and it witnessed the arrival of Australia’s first Australian-built battleship, the HMAS Brisbane in late 1918, which would anchor in Mudros Bay before taking part in the occupation of the Ottoman Empire following the signing of the Armistice of Mudros at Lemnos in October that year. Two of the sailors aboard the HMAS Brisbane – one from Bendigo and the other from Sandringham – would remain buried in Lemnos’ East Mudros Military Cemetery, having died of the pneumonia which felled millions across the world at the time. In honour of this connection, Australia sent the HMAS Success to Lemnos for the Anzac Centenary, anchoring in Mudros Bay, the first Australian warship to do so since the HMAS Brisbane in 1918.
And so in April 2021 a special ceremony will take place at this location. Here will be installed Lemnos’ Royal Australian Navy Memorial, commemorating the Australian Naval connection to Lemnos’ connection to Anzac. The new Memorial is a joint project of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee and the local government authorities on Lemnos. And like the Australian Pier Memorial, it will be a place of annual service during Lemnos’ Gallipoli commemorative services held every April.
The new Memorial will stand next to the mysterious stone structure at the end of the Turks Head Peninsula that was most probably built by Australian engineers, to be viewed by all who come to Mudros Bay. Together they will serve as a guide to modern day sailors and as a reminder of sailors in the past who were aided safely into Mudros Bay. I hope that one day the full story of the mysterious beacon of Lemnos will be revealed.
Jim Claven is a trained historian, freelance writer and has been Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee since its establishment in 2011. He is the author of the recently published book, Lemnos and Gallipoli Revealed: A Pictorial History of the Anzacs in the Aegean 1915-16. He acknowledges the assistance of Liza Koutsaplis, Dimitris Boulotis and Markos Psarakos (all of Lemnos) as well as the work of historians Bruno Bagni and Natalya Lapaeva on the Russian presence on Lemnos, in the research for this article. He can be contacted at email@example.com.