The lost photographs of Lemnos

Jim Claven uncovers an amazing collection of images recording the Hellenic link to ANZAC, never before seen by the public

I have been researching the role of Lemnos in Australia’s ANZAC story for many years now. One of the aspects of that story that sparked my interest was the huge archive of thousands of photographs – as well as diaries and letters – vividly recording the experience of the thousands of ANZAC soldiers and nurses who came to this northern Aegean island in 1915. And my sadness is that they have been largely ignored by historians and have effectively remained hidden from a wider audience – both here and in Greece.

So imagine my excitement when I was contacted by the family of Anzac Sister Evelyn Hutt and shown a large collection of photographs never before seen by the public.

Evelyn’s daughter, Ms Judith Gunnarsson, and Ms Deb Stewart, Evelyn’s granddaughter, revealed a wealth of photographs and postcards – more than 330 – as well as important memorabilia from Evelyn’s years as an Australian nurse in the First World War. Sitting with Judith in her apartment in Melbourne’s Caulfield, I listened to the stories told to Judith by her mother.

As I turned the pages of Evelyn’s albums, I saw an amazing collection of images recording the Hellenic link to ANZAC. The photographs in Evelyn’s collection reflect many of the aspects of the story of the Anzacs on Lemnos in 1915.

Lemnos played a critical role in the Gallipoli campaign, and was part of the Anzacs’ experience of that disastrous campaign. Its great protected bay at Mudros, with its surrounding shores and proximity to the Dardanelles, ensured its selection as the Allies forward base for the campaign.

From the arrival of the first troops in February 1915 until the departure of the Allied invasion force in January 1916, Lemnos was home to tens of thousands Allied troops, medical and other support personnel. On its shores the Anzacs practiced their landing routines. Lemnos was home to major medical facilities including Australian field hospitals, and the town of Sarpi home to the great ANZAC rest camp to which the battle-weary Anzacs returned in September and October. And it was to Lemnos that the Anzacs were evacuated after the end of the Gallipoli campaign.

Two ANZAC soldiers – Private Oscar Keyte and Campbell (forename indecipherable) – with hired donkeys, Lemnos, 1915. PHOTO: EVELYN HUTT COLLECTION.

Twenty-seven-year-old Evelyn arrived on Lemnos on 8 August 1915 with the other nurses of the 3rd Australian General Hospital. She had sailed from Melbourne’s Princes Pier aboard the RMS Mooltan. Born in Bagdad in Tasmania, she was tall and looks confident in the portrait shots taken of her prior to her departure. In fact, the matron of the Hobart General Hospital, where she gained her nursing training, commended Evelyn’s work as “excellent” and wrote that she could “be entirely depended upon in an emergency”.

Evelyn and the other nurses were thrown into an emergency from the day they arrived. With the field hospital barely constructed on the rise above the Turks Head Peninsula, 200 patients arrived at the hospital before breakfast on 9 August. These were the first of hundreds of casualties flowing from the bitter fighting of the offensive that began on 6 August. By 13 August, Evelyn and her fellow nurses were treating 900 patients.

The Australian nurses endured summer heat and winter gales, all exposed on the peninsula jutting into the huge bay. Initially lacking basic medical equipment, the nurses and the other medical staff performed miracles in treating the sick and wounded. In the end, the nurses’ efforts would be singled out for commendation by the medical authorities.

Thousands of diggers and other Allied soldiers owed their lives to the care of Matron Grace Wilson and her nurses. Judith remembers Evelyn speaking of her enormous respect for Matron Wilson.

One of the 148 diggers who did not survive was Private Alfred Edwards of the 12th Battalion. We don’t know if Evelyn cared for him but he was a blacksmith from her home town of Bagdad in Tasmania. Only 19 years old, he died of wounds and was buried in the growing military cemetery established at Portianou.

We do know that Evelyn was touched by the diggers in her care. One dying digger with no sweetheart at home gave Evelyn a token to remind her of him. It was a Peruvian coin. Evelyn had it made into a brooch and Judith tells us that she treasured the brooch and never forgot about this young digger on Lemnos all those years before.

While on Lemnos, Evelyn was given two other gifts by diggers. One was an Ottoman soldier’s Koran and the other a hand-stitched Ottoman flag. The Koran records that it was taken from a Turkish soldier on 7 August 1915 – presumed killed at Lone Pine on the peninsula – by Kyneton-born Sergeant Robert Alexander Murdoch of the 4th Battalion. Evelyn would most likely have met Robert when he was admitted to her hospital in October suffering from dysentery. He recovered, returned to Gallipoli and finally came again to Lemnos in December. He survived the war.

Australian sisters with local villagers.

Evelyn’s photographic collection captures the life of the Anzacs on Lemnos, from the nurses arriving in Mudros Bay, rudimentary accommodation on the slopes of the peninsula, to the smart rows of tents that signalled the improved conditions at the hospitals on Lemnos. One is of two presumably Australian soldiers outside their tents, a box of Arnott’s biscuits at their feet – a reminder of home.

There is one photograph of young Australian soldiers, now patients in the A1 ward of Evelyn’s hospital on Lemnos. They stare into the camera, a few smiling and others more difficult to read. I wonder what suffering and horror they had witnessed and endured.

The collection also includes photographs of moments of relaxation. There is one of an army band marching through the hospital, entertaining the nurses and soldiers. Another shows a group of diggers acting up at the Anzac Rest Camp at Sarpi, across the bay from the hospitals, and often visited by the Australian nurses.

But for me some of the most important images are those featuring the interaction between the Anzacs and the local Lemnian community on the island. During the months that the Anzacs stayed on Lemnos, they spread out across the island, visiting its villages, kafenion and natural springs. Evelyn’s collection adds to the evidence of this experience.

We see a photograph of the 4th Battalion’s Private Oscar Keyte, a dentist from NSW, and another soldier standing with their hired donkeys, a village and the distinctive windmills of Lemnos behind them. There is one of a group of Anzacs, some on their donkeys, guided by local Lemnian children, most likely on their way to Therma and its natural hot springs.

Evelyn and many other Anzacs visited Portianou, one of the main villages on Lemnos. Her photographs show the village houses and lanes. One shows Australian nurses and soldiers with local women and children, entitled ‘Sisters – a day out’. Another is of a group of local village women and children at their work in the village.

There is a touching image of a local woman with her child talking to an Australian nurse and soldier beside a windmill above Mudros town. Despite the language barriers, the locals and their visitors were obviously able to communicate.

Lemnos was a rural island, with villagers grinding a living from its earth. Images reveal the hard life of the island – a farmer with his over-burdened donkey in a field, another ploughing a field and women washing in a local water source.

Yet there are others of the villagers at rest, a group of local men sitting in conversation, their dog at their feet, at the end of a day’s work. Evelyn’s collection also shows the religious life of Lemnos in an image of the highly-decorated screen in one of the local Greek Orthodox churches. These images are 100 years old and yet are timeless.

After the evacuation of the peninsula, Evelyn and the other Australian nurses departed Lemnos in January 1916 on their way to Egypt and beyond. When she pasted the last photographs of Lemnos in her album she wrote ‘Good-bye LEMNOS Island’.

Anzac soldiers on hired donkeys travelling on Lemnos, most likely on their way to the hot springs at Therma.

Evelyn would go on to serve in Egypt, France, England and in Italy, her service at the latter earning her the Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class. But she also records the streets and shops of the large and then cosmopolitan cities of Egypt. Her collection includes photographs of life in Egypt, its grand hotels and cafes, like Groppi’s, the Nile and the pyramids. Many of these will resonate with those Greek Australian’s with connections to Egypt and its former Greek community.

Evelyn returned to Australia and was discharged in December 1919. But she never forgot Lemnos and the diggers she cared for. She wore the brooch given to her by the young dying digger and always remembered Matron Wilson.

Evelyn’s memorabilia and photographs are a great addition to the Australian archive of Greece’s connection to the ANZAC story. Along with the collections of photographs of A.W. Savage held in the State Library of NSW and University of Queensland, as well as the thousands of images held in the Australian War Memorial, Evelyn’s collection underscores the important impact that Lemnos had on the thousands of ANZAC soldiers and nurses who went there over 100 years ago.

Tents of Evelyn’s 3rd Australian General Hospital, Turks Head Peninsula, Lemnos, 1915. Across the bay is the Anzac Rest Camp at Sarpi. In the foreground local Greek villagers visit the hospital. PHOTO: EVELYN HUTT COLLECTION.

It was an honour for me recently to assist Evelyn’s family in the donation of this amazing collection to the State Library of Victoria to ensure its preservation and accessibility to a wider public and future generations. This is an urgent reminder of the need to preserve these fragile records of the Hellenic link to Australia’s ANZAC story.

I am convinced that there could be many other similar collections of photographs, diaries, letters and other memorabilia lying forgotten in boxes and sheds across Australia. Many such collections have already been lost, often discarded unknowingly after the death of a veteran nurse or soldier. Time is running out to save what remains.

I urge anyone with an ANZAC veteran in their family history, nurse or soldier, to find out if any such items exist and to consider donating them to a public institution – like the State Library of Victoria – which is able to both preserve them and also to make them available, often digitally, to a wider public.
This should be one of the legacies of the Centenary of Anzac.

* Jim Claven is a historian and freelance writer. Secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee, he has worked to have the new Lemnos Gallipoli Memorial in Albert Park erected. He is currently preparing a new and major commemorative publication telling the story of the Hellenic link to Anzac in the words and photographs of the Anzacs themselves. The photographs of Evelyn Hutt will feature in this publication. He acknowledges the assistance of Evelyn’s daughter, Ms Judith Gunnarsson, and granddaughter, Ms Deb Stewart, in researching this story.