|Group portrait of an unidentified officer with a Greeks locals on Lemnos. Australian War Memorial image C02222|
The Gallipoli campaign brought thousands of newcomers to Lemnos and its inhabitants. This is included the nearly 60,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers and nurses.
Lemnos was not only a safe transit harbour – it was also 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 islands 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.
|Australian soldiers at a cafe in a street in a village on Lemnos Australian War Memorial image J02450|
This meeting of cultures and peoples 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 memoires, 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 their 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.
As they toured across the island enjoying some free time, the soldiers and nurses inter-acted socially with their new Lemnian neighbours. This meeting of peoples and cultures is recounted in their writings and captured in many of their photographs.
|Greek children on Lemnos Australian War Memorial image C01429|
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 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.”
Sgt Fred Garrett of the 3rd Australian Light Horse Regiment wrote about a visit to Portianos:
“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 building white and which is a monastery.”
|An Australian soldier fraternising with Greek villagers at Mudros on Lemnos Island 21 April 1915 Australian War Memorial image G00888|
For almost all of these Australians it was their first experience of Greece, and for many there first experience overseas.
One writes of the local Greeks performing their national dance and singing anthems, of the Australians joining in with a concertina. Greek shops, bakers, farmers and butchers sold food and supplies to the Australians. And they provided a good source of donkeys – one of which would become famous.
One should remember that for many of these Australians the experience of Lemnos was tempered by the realities of war, the lack of medical supplies and equipment, living in tents during the winter gales and rain, coping with insects, dysentery and disease. But despite this reality, these Australians left an overwhelmingly positive legacy in these images and in their written accounts of their time on Lemnos.
The last word should be left to Nursing Sister Donnell, on leaving Lemnos on 20th January 1916:
“We have just seen the last of Lemnos. Of course, we are glad, yet there are many things we will miss; the unconventional freedom and the unique experiences we had there. The glorious colourings of the sky, the watching of the beautiful Star of Bethlehem at night, and the harbour and the hills; but when we think of the cold, the wind, and dust, we are thankful we are not going to spend the winter there ... Goodbye Lemnos. We take many happy memories of you. I would not have liked to miss you ...”
Recognising Lemnos’ role in the Anzac story also recognises this first inter-action between Australians and New Zealanders and Greeks – in Greece.
And they left behind a unique record of this lovely Aegean island and its people in time when it was a welcome respite from war.
|Mudros Harbour The scene at night was studded with the transports light 18 April 1915 Australian War Memorial image G00881A|