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The Ethos that Breeds Heroism: Greek-Americans’ Contribution to Triumphs of 1912-13

A people’s intuitive need to interact with the past to interpret the present and predict the future, to overcome the often oppressive confines of space and time, and to explore their collective history amidst the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities accompanying a particular era in order to better understand their group identity – and in part, themselves – never ceases to amaze.

Likewise, the ability of the human mind to generate ideas and create projects as a result of this interaction – to engage in a perennial dialogue with past generations and future ones as well – is equally fascinating. A person’s attempt to connect with his or her forefathers carries a certain air of stateliness; a deep-running sense of dignity that cannot be taught, but only experienced empirically.

Today’s article is inspired by precisely such a project and aims to provide an initial preview of a newly released book that is well worth reading: The Forgotten Heroes of the Balkan Wars: Greek-Americans and Philhellenes 1912-1913. Its author, military historian Peter S. Giakoumis, presents for the first time, the true story of a forgotten Greek-American regiment of soldiers, volunteers from all over the United States who travelled to the front lines of the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

The protagonists are young Greek immigrants, forced to leave their homes at a tender age in order to earn a living and support the families they had left behind with the money they would earn from their tireless labors in the new world. No sooner had these wide-eyed pioneers made the difficult voyage across the Atlantic and began to build their new lives in the United States than they were beckoned by their motherland to leave everything, cross the great ocean once again, and defend the Greek soil of Macedonia, Epirus, Thrace, and the Aegean islands, experiencing modern warfare the likes of which no one had ever seen, from airplanes and motor vehicles, to heavy artillery, machine guns, and trench warfare. They were accompanied on their journey by famous Philhellenes like Italy’s Ricciotti Garibaldi or retired American National Guard General Thomas Hutchison, who also volunteered and served in the Greek Army. This book tells their story using contemporary newspaper reports, letters from the front, official military narratives and private archives never presented before. 

Part of the author’s impetus for this publication dates back to an invitation he received some years ago to deliver a lecture at a small parish community, in conjunction with its Greek Afternoon School, in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Balkan Wars and Greek-Americans’ special contribution to Greece’s triumphant victories. News of the presentation spread as far as the West Coast, with the author receiving subsequent invitations to speak at Sacramento State University. Following a series of other lectures, he soon realized that the information he had compiled from his research was both seminal and voluminous enough to fully justify its publication in book format.

The resulting product provides rare insight into the contribution of Greek-Americans to Greece's triumph in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Through never-before-compiled historic documents, Giakoumis offers an in-depth account into the heroism displayed by Greek migrants and the obstacles they had to overcome. He also extols the special role played by Philhellenes in shaping this decisive moment in modern history. It's a must read for lovers of history and everyone who wants to further their appreciation of the sacrifices required to gain one's liberty.

In addition to the value of the book in its own right, this work deserves to be made known to a wider audience because it serves as tangible proof that the humble initiative of a small group of constituents from a local organization can serve to inspire creativity and be associated with a lasting work.

After all, the history of Hellenism teaches us that numbers were always of secondary importance. The creation of a work – even if it is the result of individual will power and personal inspiration – that has community life and collective co-existence as its springboard demonstrates that despite the adverse effects of time and the corruption of many institutions, the “pettiness and indifference,” and all the promises made to us by the Artaxerxeses of our era, with offers of “satrapies and things like that,” deep inside, for many Hellenes all across the world, their souls continue to long for something else and ache for other things – “that hard-won, that priceless acclaim; the Agora, the Theatre, the Crowns of Laurel.”

Cavafy’s burning question “and without them, what kind of life will you live?” should preoccupy every Hellene, because the longer this question remains unanswered, the greater the threat to our collective identity and existence. Besides, international developments indicate that the time for Hellenism to repeat the heroic actions of 1912-13 or 1940 is drawing near, and our willingness to emulate our forefathers will have much to do with deciding the outcome.

This column concludes with the wish that Mr. Giakoumis’ book be read far and wide, so that the story of the many unknown protagonists may come to light and their ethos – which ultimately breeds heroism – may become known on both sides of the Atlantic, and wherever the heart of Hellenism beats worldwide.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas

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