Yia mas

A tale of ouzo, figs and the Anzacs

Sitting in our favourite Greek café we should remember the Anzacs who came to Greece, who sat in its cafes and enjoyed the same experience all those years ago.

Greece and its people are well-known for welcoming strangers. And any visit to Greece would not be the same without the experience of its culinary delights and famous drinks. As we know, the traditional Greek diet is the envy of the world.

And such was the experience of all those young Australians – over 75,000 of them – who came to Greece during the First and Second World Wars.
The experience and enjoyment of Greece’s food and hospitality is peppered throughout their diaries and letters.

The Australians first came to Greece in 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign – walking through the villages and towns, and interacting with the local people, on Lemnos and the other Greek populated islands of the Aegean.

Local farmers, butchers, bakers, and traders sold their new visitors the abundance of the island as they prepared for the landings – pictures show villagers selling goats from their boats in Mudros Harbour.

Photographs show the Anzacs enjoying their brief periods of leave sitting in the kafenion of the villages of Lemnos. At Portianou soldiers and nurses sat in the street enjoying a coffee – maybe even an early version of the frappe or the metrio! Sergeant Fred Garrett of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment wrote that the cafés of Portianou had “gorgeous decorations.”

Nurses such as Sister Olive Haynes, who served at the Australian field hospitals on Lemnos, travelled the island on hired donkeys, visiting its villages and enjoying a meal of mandarins, figs, nuts and local cheeses. Some diggers found the local bread unusual compared to the white bread cooked in the field bakeries that were constructed on Lemnos and Imbros.

Their enjoyment of food was only the beginning. Not long after the first arrival of the Anzacs on Lemnos in March 1915, local villagers – encouraged by the local orthodox bishop – set up temporary booths along the harbour front and piers at Mudros, selling “postcards … chocolate figs, cognac, beer, and wine”. The wine was sold for a “penny a glass” and while one digger described it as “fearful stuff” it didn’t stop it being a big seller with the troops.

The diggers and nurses also enjoyed the bars and restaurants of Myrina, Lemnos’ capital. They enjoyed the products so much that some traders complained of the Australians’ rowdy behaviour after imbibing too much “local product”.

Lieutenant Weston, a New Zealand soldier, recorded how he enjoyed the hotels and hospitality of the capital, including its Turkish delight, coffee, and liqueurs. One nurse wrote of Myrina’s hotels being full of soldiers drinking.

They also enjoyed the traditional culture of Lemnos’ people – their churches and their services, and the traditional thermal baths of the island – many enjoying their first hot bath since leaving Australia! One digger records joining in with a concertina as local Lemnians performed traditional dances.

Anzacs eating hard tack biscuits. PHOTO: SCHOOLS.NATLIB.GOVT.NZ

Diggers wrote of local villagers celebrating Greek Easter – the bells of the island’s churches ringing – and offering their young Aussie visitors traditional dyed red Easter eggs. We don’t know if they cracked them with the diggers, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

One English officer – Compton Mackenzie – wrote of his love of the hospitality and food of the Greek people of Imbros. He wrote of his discovery and love of yoghurt, a big improvement on the hard biscuit and boiled beef that was the soldier’s staple diet during the Gallipoli campaign. He also enjoyed a dinner on Tenedos, with its famous wine, in the home of one of the island’s prominent families.

Mackenzie also wrote of an incredible culinary experience: enjoying a seafood BBQ with his new Greek comrades from Lesvos on the shores of Asia Minor while the Gallipoli campaign raged to the north! Charles Bean had a similar experience, taken by his Lesvian hosts to lunch under the “mulberries and vine pergola” on a “hospitable Greek farm,” with local wine and food, enjoying the hospitality and ambiance of Greek Asia Minor – all while the war continued to the north.

After Gallipoli, Australian soldiers, sailors, and nurses came to Salonika (now Thessaloniki) and the Ionian Islands. An Australian gunner – Ned Herring – who would return to Greece in 1941 to serve with the Second Anzacs – wrote of riding through the villages of northern Macedonia, and of how the Greek-populated villages sold local and imported products, while he compared the taste of coffee in various villages of the area.

Australia nursing orderly Miles Franklin enjoyed coffee, ice creams, and elegant little cakes at Thessaloniki’s famous café, Floca’s. In 1918, Australian and
New Zealand soldiers and nurses – including Miles Franklin and the Australian medical doctor Agnes Bennett – attended a famous Anzac dinner at the famed White Tower Restaurant.

The love of Greek food and hospitality would also be enjoyed by the Second Anzacs as they came to help defend Greece in 1941.

On the troopship heading to Greece the troops wondered what to expect. One Australian – Captain Hayes, a burly farmer from Victoria, of the 2/6th Battalion – advised his men to steer clear of ouzo and compared Greek beer to “that horse piss from New South Wales”. Most diggers don’t seem to have taken his advice.

As they arrived in Athens and camped in the surrounding villages, the diggers wrote of the smell of the eucalypts and bright blue sky as reminders of home after the deserts of Libya. Enjoying a brief period of leave after the campaigns in North Africa, the diggers played the tourist in Athens, visiting the Acropolis and enjoying an ouzo or beer in the bars and restaurants of Athens, probably the Plaka and Monasteraki. Photographs show the diggers drinking and toasting their Greek soldier comrades – remarking that “Greece was the best country in the world, bar one!”

This was all no doubt a welcome respite before the deadly battles that lay ahead. And they would be cheered by the villagers and townsfolk as they moved north to meet the invader.

As the campaign drew to a close, with dogged, defensive action after action, diggers wrote of being offered food and drink by village folk as they made their way to the embarkation beaches across southern Greece.

Myrina, Lemnos. PHOTO: EOT

One digger – Don Stephenson of the Australian 2/6th Battalion, a tomato-picker from Shepparton – was overwhelmed by the generosity of an old lady who gave him some chicken as he marched through Kalamata. Don’s home town would later host many post-war migrants from Greece in its soldier settlement town of Lemnos, named by the first Anzac’s in memory of their days on Lemnos in 1915.

Diggers from the Australian 2/3rd Battalion remembered an elderly Greek lady who stood by her cottage door offering “sliced cake and glasses of retsina” to the weary troops as they made their way to the waterfront. Bill Jenkins of that battalion recalled that “she was crying her eyes out”. Another digger from the same battalion recounted how he responded with “Never mind, Ma; we’ll be back and make up for all of this.”

Those who remained – as POWs or as evaders and escapers – also experienced the hospitality of Greece. Many worked on farms, hidden by their Greek owners, no doubt enjoying the local bounty with the locals who protected them. The famous Australian indigenous Anzac – Reg Saunders – was hidden and supported for months by the villagers of Crete – living on olives, bread, honey, broad beans, eggs, goats’ meat, and ewes’ milk.

One Australian POW could never forget a young child risking his life – and that of his family – by giving water to him as he was marched up from the Peloponnese on his way north. Another escaped soldier remembered being shuttled across to Evia in the early months of the occupation, only to be welcomed by what only can be described as a paniyiri.

The hospitality shown to Allied soldiers continued through the long four-year occupation. References to food and drink abound. One Allied officer recorded his local Cretan resistance comrade as enjoying raki – “the fuel for his engine” – as he took messages between local andartes bands and Allied soldiers on Crete.

Following the German occupation of Crete, there were fears that Cyprus would be next. Australian troops were rushed there to prepare for the defence of the island. While on Cyprus they would blame their raucous behavior in the bars of Nicosia on “the commander” – Cyprus’ famous sweet wine, Grand Commanderia.

As Napoleon once famously recorded, an army marches on its stomach. And so one could say that as the Anzacs came to Greece, so they were sustained by its great food, drink, and hospitality.

As we remember the Hellenic connection to Anzac, we should enjoy some tzatziki and raise a glass of Greece’s best to the diggers and nurses who came to Greece from 1915 and beyond and cheer Yia mas!