forgotten heroes: poets and poetry of Greek-American veterans of the Balkan war | opinions, columnists
Many soldiers gave their lives in the wars of 1912-1913, but little is known about the words they left us. From the famous to the least known, from the professional to the amateur, many have left us their sonnets.
Patriotism took many forms, and poetry was no stranger to wartime. It was a common medium, but unique to us is how common and prolific it was among Greeks and Greek-Americans. This proves once again that the notion of illiteracy among the Greeks and especially among all Greek-Americans of the early 1900s is ludicrous. Yes, many did not have much formal education, especially those shipped to the United States at a young age, but even some of them did manage to get a partial education in the United States. So to find that many of them had sent letters written in both English and Greek, and that others had even written diaries containing poetry is a treasure worthy of our attention.
Let’s get to know the best-known poets of the time first, followed by examples of the typical soldier, all of which have been collectively forgotten until now.
There are a limited number of professional writers and poets who participated directly in wars. The most famous soldier-poet among all Hellenes was a Greek lawyer and veteran, Spiros Matsoukas. The Hellenic Kingdom told him to use his gift of speech and poetry to raise financial support among the Greco-American diaspora, hoping that Greco-Americans could be persuaded to donate if the greatest modern patriotic orator spoke to them in person. . He traveled from coast to coast in the United States to visit Greek communities and succeeded in raising substantial funds for the modernization of the Hellenic Navy just before 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:
ON OUR FLAG
To our bright blue flag
Do i swear to be true
And my country serves me,
As I live or die.
For a single pleasure I cry,
That when death comes to me,
If a soldier I am
Or a sailor at sea,
Wrapped in the flag, I’ll lie!
I have a big dream,
Oh earth and oh sky!
To sing my Hellas,
To see her grow up,
And more glorious
Than the Hellas of yesteryear!
Crowned again in rich gold.
And still to see
San Sofia becomes Greek.
Another famous poet, a scholar and master of the Greek language sonnet, was Lorentzos Mavilis. He was a member of the Greek Parliament, university professor and captain of 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 last poetic words were: “I expected honors from this war, but not the honor of dying for Greece.”
There are a remarkable number of poems written by the average Greek soldier. Perhaps poetry was common practice in the homeland, but not documented or studied outside of the Greek language or among the Diaspora in the United States. War poems are obviously motivated by war experiences and a sense of duty. Original letters and diaries reveal that 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 to his brother fighting the Bulgarians.
The most beautiful of the islands of Greece,
Returned to the homeland,
Looks forward to his release from bondage!
Fight in the trenches
Heard was the Trik-Trak,
A flashing bayonet,
The trumpet sounding the alarm,
The signal is given,
Men in front,
In the Bulgarian trenches we scrape ourselves!
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 after the two wars he published a small booklet of poems written during and after his military service. It is interesting to note that Petropoulakis was an acquaintance of the American General Thomas S. Hutchison. They met during the Epirus campaign and are mentioned in articles written by Hutchison 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 kept.
the desire for battle,
In an instant the gun thunders,
accompanied by his honor.
Next time, we’ll dive into the circumstances behind the anti-Hellenic propaganda released at the end of the Second Balkan War and the Forgotten Heroes reaction 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.