Many soldiers gave their lives in the wars of 1912-1913, but little is known of the words that they left us. From the famous to the least known, from the professional to the amateur, many have left us their sonnets, however.
Patriotism took on many forms, and poetry was no stranger to times of war. It was a common means of expression, but unique to us is how common and prolific it was amongst the Greeks and Greek-Americans. This again proves the notion of illiteracy among the Greeks and especially all Greek-Americans of the early 1900s as ludicrous. Yes, many did not have much formal education, especially those shipped to the U.S. at a young age, but even some of them managed to get partial educations in the United States. So, to discover many of them had sent written letters both in English and in Greek, and that others had even written diaries including poetry is a treasure worthy of our attention.
Let us reacquaint ourselves with the best known of the poets of that time first, followed by examples from the typical soldier, all of whom have been collectively forgotten until now.
The professional writers and poets that participated directly in the wars are limited in number. The most famous Soldier-Poet amongst all the Hellenes was a Greek lawyer and veteran, Spiros Matsoukas. The Hellenic Kingdom entrusted him to use his gift of speech and poetry to raise financial support amongst the Greek-American diaspora, hoping Greek-Americans might be persuaded to give if the greatest modern patriotic orator spoke to them in person. He travelled coast to coast in the United States visiting Greek communities and successfully raised substantial funds for the modernization of the Hellenic Navy just prior to the First Balkan War of 1912. As for his poetry, we have a few examples in English, and for the first time in over a hundred years here are two short poems originally translated in 1911:
TO OUR FLAG
To our flag of bright blue
Do I swear to be true,
And my country serve I,
As I live or I die.
For one pleasure alone do I cry,
That when death come to me,
If a soldier I be,
Or a sailor a-sea,
Wrapped in the flag I shall lie!
A great dream have I,
Oh earth and oh sky!
To sing of my Hellas,
To see her grow great,
And glorious more
Than the Hellas of yore!
Crowned anew in rich gold.
And again to behold
San Sofia turn Greek.
Another famous poet, a scholar and master of the Greek language sonnet, was Lorentzos Mavilis. He was a member of Greek Parliament, university professor, and a captain in the Garibaldi Regiment, among many titles and roles held during his life. He commanded hundreds of Greek-American volunteers and fought valiantly at the battle of Driskos where he was mortally wounded. His final poetic words were: “I was expecting honors from this war, but not the honor to die for Greece.”
There are a remarkable number of poems in existence written by the average Greek soldier. Perhaps poetry was a common practice in the homeland, but not documented or studied outside the Greek language or amongst the diaspora of the United States. The wartime poems are obviously driven by war experiences and sense of duty. Original letters and diaries reveal many soldiers would include a few lines of poetry in
their correspondence and notes.
Aristotle Machelas of New York translated and dedicated short poems based on the correspondence of his brother fighting in the Balkan Wars. The first poem was dedicated to the unification of Crete and the Hellenic Kingdom, and the second from his brother fighting the Bulgars.
Fairest of the Islands of Greece,
Restored to the motherland,
Rejoices in her release from bondage!
Fighting in the Trenches
Heard was the Trik-Trak,
A flashing bayonet,
Setting the Mannlicher,
The trumpet sounding the alarm,
The signal is given,
In the trenches Bulgars we thrash!
The last example of robust poetry was written by a Greek Army Officer named Leonidas D. Petropoulakis. He was so moved by the victories of the Hellenic forces that immediately following the two wars, he published a small booklet of poems written during and following his military service. Of interest is that Petropoulakis was an acquaintance of the American General Thomas S. Hutchison. They met during the campaign in Epirus and is mentioned in the articles Hutchison wrote upon his return to the United States. The following poem has never been presented in English:
The tired soldier,
On a rock he rests,
his rifle guarded.
the longing for battle,
In an instant the rifle thunders,
accompanied by his honor.
Next time we delve into the circumstances behind the anti-Hellenic propaganda disseminated at the end of the Second Balkan War and the reaction of the Forgotten Heroes of 1912-1913.
Peter S. Giakoumis is the author of The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Follow him on www.Facebook.com/1912GreekHistory.