Commemorating Gallipoli’s Hellenic Heart: Lemnos 1915

Jim Claven looks into the historic time for Lemnos and its Australian connection in this two part series

“I never quite shook off the glamour of that island in the deep blue of the Aegean. Never was there an early morning when the skies were not blue and waters unruffled. Breezes softer and more scented than human kisses floated perpetually to us from the hills of Lemnos.”
With these words, one of Australia’s Anzac soldiers – Sydney Loch – recorded his feelings for this big island in the Aegean. His experiences at Gallipoli would give him a hatred of war and a devotion to humanitarian work that would bring him back to Greece in the 1920s. But Lemnos left its mark as a place of peace, solace and beauty for this Anzac, as it did for many others.
April 2013 is an appropriate time to remember Lemnos and its connection to the Anzac story. Lemnos played a key role both at the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign and at its end, symbolised by the Armistice concluding the war with the Ottoman Empire being signed aboard the HMS Agamemnon in Lemnos’ Mudros harbour.
The beautiful island of Lemnos sits in the northern Aegean Sea. On a clear day, from its shores, the visitor can see Samothrace, the Asia Minor coast and to the north, the mysterious Mount Athos – the Holy Mountain – home to many famous monasteries.
Lemnos is an ancient island, its origins emerging from the mists of time. Legend has it that Lemnos came to prominence as a result of a fight between the gods. The god of metallurgy – Haephaestus – was cast out by Zeus and hurled from Mount Olympus, crashing onto Lemnos. Haephaestus gave the inhabitants the gift of metallurgy, the island containing the minerals to make bronze and other metals. In his honour, the grateful villagers would later build an amphitheatre and name a village on the northern coast of the island after their generous benefactor. This beautiful amphitheatre is one of the most ancient in Greece.
The next visitors to be touched by Lemnos were Jason and the Argonauts. On their journey to find the Golden Fleece, Jason and his crew came to Lemnos and encountered strange tall female warriors on the cliffs of the western shores. The story tells us that Jason and the Argonauts became romantically involved with the Lemnian women and helped to re-populate the island, connecting Lemnos even closer with the Greek mainland.
However, Lemnos’ location ensured it was destined to play a central role in war. Sophocles tells us of the great archer Philoctetes, who after being abandoned by his comrades sick on Lemnos for ten years is persuaded by Odysseus to come to the walls of Troy, where he slays the famous Paris. And we read in Homer that the great King Agamemnon lit a chain of fires on the island’s peaks to signal to his Queen, Clytaemnestra, that Troy had fallen.
But in 1915, tens of thousands of new soldiers arrived on Lemnos, including thousands of young Australians, on their way to the bloody and disastrous campaign on the Gallipoli peninsula. As well as Australia, they hailed from Britain, New Zealand, Canada, France, India and Egypt to name the main sources of this new and sudden influx. Some 500,000 Allied soldiers took part in the Gallipoli campaign. They would transform the island and its islanders. As Nurse Kath King wrote on her arrival at Mudros in April 1915, Australians seemed to be everywhere.
Only recently liberated and joined to Greece in 1912, Lemnos’ position at the gateway to the Dardanelles and its harbour at Mudros had encouraged Greece to offer Lemnos as the base for Allied operations at Gallipoli.
The outbreak of the First World War and Australia’s participation in the Gallipoli campaign would bring Australians to Greece for the first time. It would be the first significant encounter of Australians with Greece, an interaction which has grown with the years and still plays a major part of Australian and Greek culture.
When the Australian troops and nurses arrived, they found a beautiful and unknown island. After the heat and dust of their training camps in Egypt, Lemnos was a welcome relief to these young Australians.
The Australian experience of Lemnos was varied. All soldiers had some connection with the island, even if only as a safe transit harbour. But for thousands it would be a place of refuge, healing, work, of preparing and training for battle – and one of happy recreation and respite from the horrors and disease of the Gallipoli peninsula.
Initially the arrivals overwhelmed the island’s resources of water and other supplies – with the result that many soldiers and nurses spent most of their initial experience of Lemnos on board their transit ships. Yet even then, they would go ashore for periods at a time and enjoy the fruits of the island and its hospitality. The famous John Simpson, soon to be immortalised when he acquired his donkey, rowed men ashore to find fresh vegetables, and promptly set off to barter wine for his mates.
From these beginnings on the hundreds of ships in the crowded harbour of Mudros, the Allied forces established hospitals, rest camps and supply depots across the island. They would spread out from their bases and visit the towns and villages across the island, meeting the locals.
This meeting of cultures between these young Australians and Lemnos and its people has left us a unique legacy. For not only did these young Australians record their experiences in letters, diaries and memoirs, but they also produced an amazing photographic record. For the soldiers and nurses brought cameras to the island, recording their stay and experiences in thousands of images.
A major repository of these photographs is consolidated in the Australian War Memorial collection in Canberra. Looking through these images, one sees the great armada of war ships preparing for battle, the soldiers marching and resting on the island, the nurses and hospitals with their injured, and the newly dug graves of the soldiers who would stay on Lemnos, never to return to Australia. But they also include tender moments of happiness and respite, even a wedding, under the long shadow of the ever-present fighting.
But one of the intriguing aspects of this photographic record is its depiction of Lemnos and its villagers. It would be difficult to find such a location in Greece at the turn of the century that has had its ordinary life recorded in such detail for the benefit of future generations.
What sort of island did they find? Lemnos was undeveloped, with few roads or major buildings and limited infrastructure. Its villagers led what can only be described as a simple life, scratching a living from the land and trading their surpluses of food and produce with outsiders.
But during their eight months or so on Lemnos, the soldiers, nurses and engineers would transform the island – physically and socially. Roads and piers would be built, bridges repaired, water sources improved and the villagers would find a new source of income in supplying the thousands of new visitors to the island. And the Lemnians would benefit from access to new medical services built on the island for the wounded of the battlefield.
As they toured across the island enjoying some free time, the soldiers and nurses interacted socially with their new Lemnian neighbours. This meeting of peoples and cultures is recounted in their writings and captured in many of their photographs.
They would record their impressions of Lemnos and its people in letters, diaries and memoirs. These tell of their love of the light and the harbour waters, of meeting local Greek children. Of visits to local Orthodox Church services, recording the rich icons, gorgeous robes of the priests and the perfumed air, infused with the smell of incense. They would write of visits to local schools and their impressions of the schoolchildren. They visited the local shops for some fresh food, such as meat, mandarins and nuts. They sat in the village taverns and found wine “very good”. They would recount stories of negotiating the hiring or purchase of donkeys and boats from locals to travel across and around the island when on leave. Signaller N.K. Harvey found the Orthodox Church services fascinating, “interesting and novel to the Australians”:
“Holy Week and Easter occurred during our stay on the island, and our men were interested in how this season was observed by the Greeks. There was an amount of bell-ringing in the churches, and for a day or two the bells never seemed to stop. On Easter Day there were innumerable gifts of dyed Easter eggs from the villagers to our men.”
And they would tell of their relaxations in the streets and shops of the island’s towns and villages, and visits to the reviving hot mineral baths at the wonderful mineral springs of Thermi. Visiting the latter, Signaller A.H. Edmonds wrote:
“Here the troops indulged in the luxury of a hot bath – the first, for most of us, since leaving our native land. The springs gush from the hillsides near the bottom of the valley, over which has been built the bath-house. The bathroom is about 12 feet square and dimly lighted by a perforation in the roof, which is domed. The floor is paved with marble slabs, on to which the hot water splashes from marble basins set in the walls. Besides these healing waters, Lemnos is famous for its ‘medicinal earth’, claimed in older times to heal festering wounds. Turks in modern times believe that a vessel of this earth renders impotent poison drunk from it.”
Lieutenant Colonel Aubrey Herbert wrote of his visit to Thermi and Myrina (then referred to as Castro):
“Drove across the island to Castro. There was a delightful spring half a mile from Castro and a café kept by a Greek… Great fig-trees and gardens… Castro is beautiful, with balconies over the narrow streets…and shady gardens. I bathed in a transparent sea, facing Athos, which was gleaming like a diamond. I watched its shadow come across the eighty miles of sea at sunset, as Homer said it did.”
Sgt Fred Garrett of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment wrote about a visit to Portianos, in words that resonate with the memory of every visitor to Greece:
“Greek cafes with gorgeous decorations. Houses are solidly built and all two story. Where convenient there is a big vine trained around the cottage. All the yards I saw were paved with slabs and surrounded with high stone walls. … Away back on the top of a high hill and perched on the very peak is a solitary big white building which is a monastery.”
Sister Olive Haynes, a nurse at No. 2 Australian General Hospital on Lemnos, recorded her visit to Kondia on the 9th January 1915:
“… We’ve had such nice weather lately – we have been awfully lucky. The other afternoon Sister Daw and I walked to Kondria, such a pretty little port over the other side. We bought mandarins and nuts and ate them in a shop. The Greek kids gathered round saying ‘Australia very good, very nice. Turco finish.'”
For almost all of these Australians it was their first experience of Greece, and for many their first experience overseas. But others brought an awareness and sensitivity to their commentary on Lemnos. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert compared the fauna of Lemnos to that of Crete, Cyprus and other islands he had already visited. Young signaller A.H. Edmonds wondered whether his Anzac colleagues were aware of “the sanctity of the classical ground on which they trod”. He recalled that the island was sacred to Haephaestus and had been visited by Jason and the Argonauts on their way to Cholcis, and their having been well received by the Lemnian women.
Above all the Anzacs loved the natural environment of Lemnos. Nursing Sister AM Kellet wrote how nothing compared to the sunsets of Lemnos:
“Beautiful as the sunsets were in Egypt, they were nothing compared to those at Lemnos. As you watched, the whole sky and surrounding country was veiled in a deep rose colour, and the rugged mountains became quite soft, looking as they were veiled in tulle. As you gazed, the colour changed, tinting all objects to a pale mauve, shading to a deep violet. The afterglow was equally as beautiful, which had again changed to a bright sapphire blue.”
*Jim Claven is a historian and published author. He is Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee and has conducted field studies of Lemnos and Greece. Part two will be in next week’s English Edition.