The headlines of 1912 often mentioned volunteers, but who exactly were they? To answer that question, we must first make a distinction between three groups of Greeks in the United States: the Greek military reservists, the young men under 18 that left the Hellenic Kingdom prior to serving in the military, and the Greek men who came from the unredeemed parts of the Ottoman Empire.
The last group of men lived in areas that were ethnically Greek, but held and governed by the Ottoman Empire, such as the East Aegean Islands, Epirus, Thessaloniki, Thrace, Macedonia, etc.
All Greeks that lived in Ottoman Empire did not serve in the Greek military and as Ottoman subjects could be forced to serve in the Ottoman army. Once those Greek men arrived in the United States, they were mere bystanders with no obligation to serve since they were not Hellenic citizens.
Ultimately the three groups combined represented a total of 45,000 or more Greek men that went to Greece and served in the Hellenic armed forces. Proportionally, the greatest number was made up of the military reservists, followed by the young men that had left at a young age and had to serve, and the last group comprised between two to three thousand – true volunteers men that had no obligation to serve since they originated in the unredeemed areas of Greece under Ottoman rule.
Also of interest is the fact that American college students from all over the United States wrote letters to the Greek Ambassador informing him of their decision to volunteer for service in the Greek army. The Greek government made it known that they were grateful for their support but could not accept foreign-born volunteers.
Those Greek volunteers from the unredeemed parts of the Ottoman Empire saw action in the First Balkan War of 1912 in two separate groups. The first numbered between 1,200 and 1,400, and served in the famous Garibaldi Regiment under the direct command of Major Alexandros Romas. The command was filled with Americanized Greek volunteers with no prior service. As they arrived in Greece, they were assigned to Major Romas and commonly referred to as the Greek Red Shirts. The Garibaldi Regiment always wore a red tunic or jacket as part of their traditional uniform. The regular Greek Army tunic was khaki green in color, so the uniform jacket was dyed red, giving it a darker red or brick-red tone. All Garibaldi officers had their jackets custom made, so their jackets were made of red wool and therefore vibrant red. The pants remained khaki in color, same as the regular army. The ‘kepi’ that the Garibaldians wore was entirely red, however the Greek Red Shirt volunteers may have worn a kepi that had a brick red upper half and khaki green bottom half to differentiate them as Greek volunteers. The bulk of the remaining eleven hundred or more Garibaldi volunteers directly under the command of Ricciotto Garibaldi and his officers were Italian and included a mix of various other nationalities.
The Garibaldi Regiment fought in several actions in Epirus, on their way to Ioannina. Unfortunately, their final battle was at the battle of Driskos in November of 1912. Unbeknownst to them they engaged a retreating Ottoman Army Division. Outnumbered ten to one, they suffered great losses. As a result, they were no longer an operational fighting force. The survivors were all given honorable discharges and returned to their civilian lives. There was an exception – 300 Greek-Americans from the Red Shirts were held in service to support the army operations in the region. To commemorate the battle of Driskos, a special battle clasp, or bar, was commissioned to honor the valiant men who fought and died there.
The next group of volunteers that require mention are the liberators of Mytilene–Lesvos. Approximately 210 Americanized Greeks took an oath and formed the Lesbian Phalanx. They swore to fight as a unit and liberate their home island. Upon arrival in Greece, the government attached them to the Greek Army as part of the force that landed on Mytilene. They took part in various engagements against the Ottoman forces holding the island. One volunteer even fought in the liberation of his own village. They later awarded those men medals with a special bar attached to the ribbon reading LESVOS, for their accomplishments.
The volunteers served with high distinction, the lack of military training did nothing to hold back their spirit or duty – they fought and gave up their lives for the chance to liberate those that had been waiting since 1821. The volunteer Greek-Americans earned their medals and the gratitude of all Greeks then and now. Long Live the Heroes of 1912-1913!
Next time we catch up to the Americanized Greeks on the fields of battle.
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.