Last month we celebrated the 30-year anniversary of the sister city relationship between Melbourne and Thessaloniki.
This is a relationship based on the thousands of new migrants who came to Melbourne from Thessaloniki in the 1950s, following the Second World War when Anzac troops came to defend northern Greece in 1941. And it’s a relationship that reaches beyond this to the First World War, when Thessaloniki and surrounding Macedonia was a place of conflict.
Strolling along Thessaloniki’s waterfront is a wondrous experience. From the old railway station, past the grand hotels and cafes, and on to the White Tower, all sitting on the edge of the bay extending off to the horizon, you can’t help but be struck by its peaceful beauty.
It is hard to imagine that these stones have witnessed war as well as peace. The port once bustled with army transport ships, the harbour a mass of battleships. The beautiful avenues of the city once sounded to the march of soldiers’ boots as well as the loud carousing of the soldiers of many nations in its bars and cafes. And above all – the castle and the hills beyond – to the battlefields of yesterday.
The Salonica campaign lasted four long years and raged from Albania to Thrace, and would eventually involve over 620,000 Allied troops from across the world, including Australia and New Zealand.
Thessaloniki had been liberated barely three years – with the Melbourne-born grandson of the great Italian liberator, Garibaldi, taking part in its liberation as an Aussie volunteer in the Greek Army.
With 70 miles of trenches defending Thessaloniki, the surrounding hinterland would witness some of the most protracted and bloody fighting of the First World War – from the coast of Albania to the northern Aegean shores of Thrace – and the ever-present threat of malaria from the marshes of the Axios.
Thessaloniki’s Anzac Trail
Some 450 Australian nurses and soldiers served here, leaving behind a great record of their experiences in letters, memoirs and photographs. They wrote of the war and they wrote of Greece.
Most of the soldiers served with the British Army. Maryborough’s Second Lieutenant Ned Herring would be decorated and promoted for his service with the Royal Field Artillery during the campaign. Private Cliff Doolan, from outback New South Wales, served in France and transferred to Salonica. Both returned to defend Greece in 1941. Lieutenant Patrick Guaran was a 29-year-old Melbourne University medical student from Inkerman Road in St Kilda and a Gallipoli veteran.
Most of the nurses served in four British hospitals, all led by 47-year-old Principal Matron Jessie McHardie White from Yarra Flats, near Healesville and a Gallipoli veteran.
Melbourne’s 25-year-old staff nurse Christine Erica Strom and 24-year-old Welsh-born Edith May Jeremiah from Wonthaggi Hospital were joined by two Australian nurses who had served on Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign – 40-year-old Sister May Florence Young from Bendigo and 36-year-old Matron Alice Marion Pritchard from Kyabram.
Miles Franklin, a feminist and already a celebrated novelist from New South Wales, was inspired to join the Scottish Women’s Hospital in 1917 at Arnissa. This all-female, privately-funded military hospital had been founded by the Scottish doctor Elsie Inglis and was led by two Australian doctors – Sydney’s Agnes Bennett and Mary De Garis from Mildura.
The story of these Australians is a story of one of the earliest links between Australia and Greece and they have left behind a trail that can be experienced as one walks the modern streets of Thessaloniki and the valleys and hills beyond.
Approaching the waterfront, they saw an unfamiliar but vibrant city. The soldiers wrote of Thessaloniki as a “wondrous sight”, of its bustling port and the city stretching along the shore and climbing up to the walled citadel above, reminding some of Naples.
One who recorded the cosmopolitan life of the city was Lieutenant Hoddinott, an artillery officer from Kew. He described local Greek men wearing heavy white trousers, with cloth leggings and a red waist band, a black, white or coloured shirt under a jacket, often with a knife in their belts. And Greek women in “long black skirts and white blouses … and some covering their heads with a black cloth”. He wrote of the Muslim residents with their fezzes and of the city’s great Jewish community, many fluent in the Ladino language of their distant Spanish origin.
Two favourite haunts of the Australians was Orosdi Back’s emporium and Floca’s Cafe.
Orosdi Back’s was the ‘Harrods of Thessaloniki’ as the Australian Major Debenham called it. Almost anything could be purchased here, from fresh scrambled eggs to camping equipment or any other oddments to make life bearable. Their advertisement placed in the Allied forces newspaper – The Balkan News – in 1915 proudly declared: “We undertake any description of contract, and what we have not got ourselves we will obtain free of charge.”
Floca’s was a large cafe on the then-Place de la Liberte, with pavement tables where one enjoyed its coffee, ice creams and famous elegant little cakes – such as their signature ‘Plaisir des Dames’, a roll with chocolate on the outside and cream chocolate filling on the inside, like an éclair.
Rumoured to be full of spies, it was the place to be seen. Miles Franklin described tea here as a “rendezvous with the bloom of international chivalry” and the Australian Lieutenant Fairbairn as “the most fashionable place to have tea”.
Another entertainment venue was the famed White Tower restaurant. A popular haunt for officers of all nations, this waterfront venue was a restaurant and outside cafe with marble tables – decorated with flowers and fruit – with customers drinking beer or grenadine while listening to its band. On 7th January 1918 a New Zealand soldier organised a dinner attended by a number of Australian soldiers and nurses, including Miles Franklin and Dr Agnes Bennett.
Army Chaplain Patton from Sydney wondered at the Roman Arch of Galerius and the Church of Agios Dimitrios, delivering a lecture on Thessaloniki’s history to soldiers, drawing on the words from the Acts of the Apostles to inspire the soldiers who had come from across the globe to defend Thessaloniki: “And a vision came to Paul in the night; there stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia and help us.”
Beyond the city
Leaving the city on their way to their hospitals and bases at the front they passed through Greek villages, buying figs and mandarins, chickens and rabbits, chocolate, fresh eggs and native black bread from local villagers. They wrote of local church services, the women in brightly coloured clothes, the patterned Eucharist rye bread, thin waxed candles giving flickering light, incense and icons.
Many wrote of being welcomed at village dances. Lieutenant Guaran recorded that they danced in a circle, “with intervals for coffee or something stronger”. Sydney’s Major McIntyre wrote: “The women were all out in their best coloured petticoats and aprons. One dance was very graceful: they all joined hands to make a broken circle, and worked around, doing a kind of slow Highland fling with their feet.”
Miles Franklin wrote of “enjoying the Australian heat” of the summer, with the opportunity to swim nearly every day in nearby Lake Vegoritis, “a glorious swimming hole”. The Macedonian mountains reminded her of Australia’s Blue Bogongs. For Matron Jessie McHardie White, the arching elms of Stavros’ seafront reminded her of Ballarat and Lake Wendouree.
Miles Franklin wrote of sipping coffee among card-playing officers in the cafes of Edessa, its beautiful gardens and the Karanos falls, where the town’s streams gather into a cataract “hurling themselves off the plateau with a roar like thunder” into the valley below.
At Hortiatis Nurse Strom found the view across the bay from the hills above beautiful, with “sweet smelling herbs” – wild thymes, mint and lavender – growing all around. And Ned Herring wrote of “snow-capped peaks, of glassy lakes and glorious hills and glorious valleys, studded with quaint and attractive villages … For it is a wonderful country, and in springtime this year it was hard to pick a more beautiful scenery … Macedonia has treated us well”.
The war came to an end in September 1918. The defence of Thessaloniki and the success of the campaign ensured that the city and Macedonia remained part of Greece. These Australian soldiers and nurses helped secure this. As she left Thessaloniki, Miles Franklin wrote of the land she had come to love:
“Now we have exchanged the mountainsides, once more starry with bloom, for the deck of a steamer … but there is no winged sensation in clearing, for the hope of adventure lies behind … Salonique, with its conglomerate drama, its smells, its sins, its glamour, drops behind us. Its ancient cypress trees, like sentinels of eternity, are hull down on the horizon…”
A nurse far from home
On the outskirts of Thessaloniki is a place that must be visited on your Anzac pilgrimage. The Commonwealth Military Cemetery at Mikra contains the graves of two Australians who did not return. One is Sapper E Heron from Cottesloe in Western Australia who died in 1918 aged 28. He lies alongside 14 Cypriot servicemen of the Macedonian Mule and Labour Corps.
But Mikra also contains the grave of the only Australian nurse to be buried in Greece in the First World War – Nurse Gertrude Evelyn Munro. She had arrived in Thessaloniki in 1916, serving with the 60th British General Hospital at Hortiatis until 1918. From Ballarat, she had enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in August 1916. Like many who served in the campaign, she became ill, having contracted malaria and dysentery, succumbing on 10th October 1918. She was 34 years old when she was buried with full military honours.
Mikra also contains the memorial to the 167 soldiers and medical staff who died following the torpedoing of the transport ship HMT Marquette in 1915. Ten New Zealand nurses were among the dead, testimony to the wartime dangers of the waters around Thessaloniki.
Other Australians remain across Macedonia and beyond – South Yarra’s Major Jack Hughston at Sarigol and Second Lieutenant Donald Glasson at Skopje. Sydney’s Lieutenant Ralph Cullen is remembered on the British War Memorial at Doiran.
Walking the Anzac Trail
A visit to Thessaloniki and Macedonia is essential for all interested in retracing the footsteps of the Anzacs in Greece.
With Lemnos, the city and the region hold the memory of these young Australians who came to Greece in World War One, just as they hold the story of those Anzacs who returned in 1941 to again defend Greece at nearby Vevi.
Thessaloniki and Macedonia are taking steps to ensure that these young Australians are not forgotten. As we celebrate Melbourne’s link with Thessaloniki, we should also remember them.
* Jim Claven is a historian, freelance writer and secretary of the Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee. He and the committee will be erecting a memorial in Albert Park to the memory of the role of Lemnos in Australia’s Gallipoli story. He leads commemorative tours of Greece’s Anzac sites. He acknowledges the pioneering work of Hugh Gilchrist in telling the story of the Australians in the Salonica campaign.
He can be contacted on [email protected]