The influence of Ancient Greek literature on the world would be difficult to underestimate. In the English language tradition alone, their influence can be traced from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Lord Byron to James Joyce. The writings of the Greek historians, poets, playwrights and philosophers have enriched the creative writings of many.
One of my favourites is the funeral oration of Perikles. I was once presented with a copy of the oration by Philippos Petsalinikos, Speaker of the Hellenic Parliament. These words were written by the great historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, and attributed to the Athenian leader Perikles. Whether they were actually said by Perikles is of little account, for it is in the words themselves that their universal power lies.
Thucydides places these words in the mouth of Perikles as he laments the Athenian dead from recent fighting. They are full of remorse, the fleeting nature of martial glory and its terrible cost. But most importantly, they speak of what is a fitting memorial to those who have given their life in war. They argue that is not to be found only in stone memorials but rather in the memory of their deeds in the lives of those who survived and who remember them. It is an appeal to never forget – or as we would say in Australia – lest we forget.
The sentiments have often been translated. One of these can be found in the Scottish National War Memorial that stands within the grounds of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland which I have visited many times. It reads:
“The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men and their story is not graven only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.”
This translation is etched into the beautiful stone memorial of one regiment of Scottish soldiers who served in the First World War, including at Gallipoli and the Salonika Front. These were the men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. They came to the Greek Islands of the Imbros and Lemnos during their war service, while other units of the Regiment would walk in the great city of Salonika as they made their way to the fronts to the north. The Regiment’s 1/4th and 1/5th Battalion’s landed at Cape Helles in June and remained at Gallipoli until the evacuation in January 1916. The 8th Battalion served at Salonika from November 1915 until the end of the war. The Regiment would lose 5,600 men across the various fronts that they served in the First World War. Two hundred would be killed at Gallipoli – eight of these remain buried in Lemnos’ two war cemeteries – with a further 300 wounded.
How fitting that the words of one of Greece’s great historians, writing of the dead of another terrible war, should be chosen to commemorate the memory of these soldiers from the northern edge of Europe. The Scots writer Ian Hay in his volume on the Scottish National War Memorial published in 1931 singled out the Royal Scots Fusiliers memorial as “perhaps the most beautiful Regimental Memorial in the building”, adding that it is “a noble epitaph, and a great parallel.”
I have seen this memorial on a number of occasions, however only recently have I been able to locate a photograph of the memorial. Photographs are not allowed to be taken within the Scottish National War Memorial. But recently with the help of researcher Ian McHaffie (who researches Greek language text on memorials in the UK) we were able to find photographs held by the University of St Andrews.
Historical research can throw up interesting connections. Many of the soldiers of the Royal Scots Fusiliers came from the lowlands of Scotland, including the city of Ayr, located to the south of my own native Glasgow, and home to Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. In the years before the war one of the locals who joined the Royal Scots Fusiliers was a young man named John Oman.
However John would leave the Fusiliers and the industrious heartland of Scotland for Australia – as so many from the across world did – in the years before the outbreak of war. Some came to make a new life, others to avoid the responsibilities of the old. For John it was the latter, for he left behind a wife and two children, for whom he provided no support. By August 1914, John was 26 years old and working as a plasterer living in Warwick, Queensland.
In a tragic turn of fate, John would join the Australian Imperial Force in Brisbane at the start of the war and leave Australia on the voyage that would ultimately take him to Gallipoli. Serving with the 9th Infantry Battalion, James came to Lemnos in the days prior to the landings. He would have no doubt practiced embarking and disembarking, undertaken landing practice and route marches across the island. He would have gazed on the waters of Mudros Bay and the hills of Lemnos in the few peaceful days he would enjoy prior to their departure for Anzac Cove in the hours before the landings on 25 April 1915.
Whatever James got up to on Lemnos what we do know is that he was keen to explore the nearby villages and enjoy their hospitality – as many other soldiers did and would do. Unfortunately this was at the time “out of bounds” and against specific orders issued to the Battalion.
John was not to be deterred. Evidence tendered at his court martial at Mudros in March states that he was found by 9th Battalion military policemen to have been “in a wine shop in the village of Mudros” on 24 March, when he should have been undertaking field punishment. Three other soldiers stated at the court martial that John was not only in the “wine saloon” but was “drunk.” John is recorded as having not disputed the evidence. Given his background, James seems to have been a strong-willed, maybe even a stubborn person. This was a continuation of behavior for which he had been punished at the Mena Camp in Egypt in December 1914. In what appears to have been a symbolic sentence, he was given three months field punishment and forfeiture of nearly 100 days pay – all suspended due no doubt to the imminence of the Gallipoli landings.
Yet these personal tribulations would fade in coming days. He took part in the murderous landings on 25 April and the subsequent defence of the Anzac Cove beachhead before being killed in action on the Peninsula on 8 May. He is buried at Shell Green Cemetery on the Peninsula.
James’ service file contained the usual correspondence and documentation, including letters from his wife Wilhelmina seeking confirmation of her wayward husband’s death and enquiring about his effects. Thankfully she as John’s wife and their two sons were granted pensions by the Australian authorities. She would also receive his three war medals, memorial plague, memorial scroll and copy of the Where Australians Rest commemorative booklet.
How surprised was I to read that James’ wife lived in the Glasgow suburb of Dennistoun, on the east side of the city, where my own family once lived. My own maternal grandfather John Dunnion also served in the First World War, with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, but fate would see him serve on the Western Front rather than Gallipoli.
It is no surprise that the Australian war correspondent and historian, Charles Bean, who saw first hand the horror of Gallipoli, would consider the words of another Ancient Greek writer to be a fitting epitaph for those who, like John, gave their lives at Gallipoli. These are drawn from an Ancient Greek stile or grave stone, erected at the Dardanelles over 2,400 years ago (now in Athens), commemorating Greek soldiers who fell in another war:
“They gave their shining youth, and raised thereby Valours own monument which cannot die.”
It was these words that I selected for the inscription on the Australian Hellenic Memorial that was laid in the gardens of the Victorian Parliament a few years ago.
If this story proves anything it proves the incredible multicultural element that lies at the heart of Australia’s Anzac tradition. Here we have a Scottish immigrant to Australia, serving in the Australian Army, coming to Lemnos and being killed at Gallipoli. And here we have a memorial to Scots who served alongside John Oman, commemorated with the words of one of Greece’s great historians. The words and sentiments expressed in Ancient Greece travel down the centuries to speak to us and on to future generations. Lest we forget.
Jim Claven is a trained historian and published author, who has written Lemnos & Gallipoli Revealed and Grecian Adventure : Anzac Trail Stories & Photographs – Greece 1941. He thanks Ian McHaffie for his assistance with this article. He can be contacted at email@example.com