Most have heard of the Sacred Regiments of 1821 and WWII. But what of the Sacred Companies of 1912? Prior to the official declaration of war in October 1912, the Greeks of America realized another war with the Ottoman Empire was inevitable and took it upon themselves to prepare.
To do this, Greeks throughout the United States decided to create military clubs. They found former military veterans amongst their ranks and practiced basic military drills and marksmanship. They organized themselves geographically in the cities where they lived, not by the towns or regions in Greece they were from, although one famous group did just that, the Lesbian Phalanx. That unit of about two hundred was organized in New York City prior to leaving for Greece for the sole purpose of liberating their beloved island of Mytilene. Remarkably those volunteers were permitted to serve alongside the Greek Army.
In Chicago, the military club used the well-known immigrant settlement house, Hull House, to practice and drill. They all wore surplus U.S. Army uniforms and purchased weapons.
Typically, the local Greek business owners helped cover expenses and occasionally the men used their own money to purchase surplus uniforms and equipment from American dealers. Some of the men had served in the Greek Army but most had not, and their ages varied from teenagers to older Greek men. They all had the same mindset: defend Hellas.
Many cities throughout the United States contributed units, including Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, Philadelphia and Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, Lowell and Haverhill, Massachusetts, Martin Ferry, Ohio, Weirton, West Virginia, and St. Louis.
A few men even joined the American National Guard to gain as much military knowledge as possible and taught what they learned to the other members of their companies. In New York City, at least three of them joined the 71st Regiment, National Guard, State of New York prior to leaving for the war.
Greek men typically started their military clubs prior to 1910 and in most cases, they felt the burden of working and finding time to drill during the little time off they had. After a couple of years, and with a couple of false alarms (1912 was not the first time they heard a war cry), they started to tire of drilling, and only the most dedicated stayed in the clubs. By the time war was declared in October of 1912 only the hard-core units were ready, and the New York Company being the largest, absorbed some of the other smaller clubs and set out for the war in October aboard the Madonna steamship bound for the Hellenic Kingdom.
Here we have a unique opportunity to admire the men of the New York Volunteer Sacred Company in all their glory in the only known photograph of them. It was taken on the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation of the Mother of God in New York City prior to their departure for the war in 1912.
What a sight the Sacred Company must have been! Eyewitness reports and Greek newspapers document the unit mustering and parading through the streets of Athens. They were well-drilled and wore the peculiar uniform of the U.S. Army, with the letters “NY” visible on their collars, according to the spectators.
By November 9, 1912 the New York contingent, the first and largest of the Sacred Companies, had arrived in Arta after marching over thirteen miles, and were ready for combat. They were quickly deployed to the front and saw action as a unit in Ioannina fighting with their own weapons. Many accounts put their number at no less than 700 men, possibly as many as a thousand. Their service and accomplishments were reported on by Greek, American, and British Newspapers. They all had similar comments to make, that the unit fought with distinction and ability that separated them from everyone else.
As we glance again at this photograph, we must be reminded that many of those men never returned from the battlefields.
Thank you to all the Balkan War Veterans, your sacrifices won two wars and doubled the size of Greece!
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/.