Saturday, June 18, 2022


When I was young, memories of the Second World War in Greece were still fresh and most of the people I knew had either experienced it, or its aftermath. Their memories, extremely traumatic as they were, helped to shape my world view. They were intensely personal memories, ones of starvation, privation and above all fear. 

Superimposed upon those memories, was the official mythography of the War: the story of the doughty but valiant, selfless Greeks who combined as one, as their ancestors did of old, to repel the fascist invader, afterwards refusing to suffer occupation and domination by a genocidal regime.  

Often, this superimposition produced conflicts: If the invader was as louche, effeminate and corwardly as he was portrayed, then was not victory certain? If our people did combine as one, how was it that a short while afterwards civil society was shattered and polarised, resulting in a bloody Civil War? 

In all these accounts, the emphasis is undeniably Grecocentric, with scant if any space afforded to the Allied troops that supported the Greek army and which operated within Greece at the time. Yet the stories of those troops, especially the Australian ones, provide a valuable perspective into prevailing conditions at the time, while their impressions of their “first-encounters” with Greece and the Greek people form the backdrop to the broader Greek-Australian narrative, greatly informing our understanding of the mainstream’s reception of and attitudes towards the Greek people in Australia. 

Eight decades after the Second World War, there is renewed interest, especially among second and third generation Greek-Australians in the operations of Australian soldiers within Greece during that time. In a large part, this interest comes from a desire to form a stakeholding within the wider Australian war narrative, one that is afforded great respect by the dominant class. In seeking to highlight the experiences of Australian soldiers within Greece, there is an attempt by Greek-Australians to broaden the military narrative further so as to encompass their own places of origin, with the desire that their history effectively becomes acculturated and appropriated by the dominant discourse. This historical phenomenon is of great sociological importance, indicating how a mosaic of histories and narratives can exist alongside each other, contributing but not coalescing, to the formation of a compound, mutli-faceted and inclusive narrative. Arguably, it is for the reason that the Pammessenian Brotherhood Papaflessas have admirably chosen to publish historian Jim Claven’s: “Grecian Adventure. Greece 1941. Anzac Trail Stories and Photographs,” in commemoration of the eightieth anniversary of the Greek campaign of 1941. 

Rather than approach his work via a particular theoretical perspective, in his meticulously researched book, Jim Claven prefers to give voice to those who actually lived through the events he purports to treat and thus the story is told from the point of view of Australian soldiers, upon painstaking examination of their diaries and ephemera, granting the work immediacy and authenticity. In this way the reader is provided with three advantages: an appreciation of strategy, something that would not have been accessible to the Greeks in the vicinity and thus largely absent from the Greek-Australian memories of these events, a deep understanding of the risks and dangers of warfare, allowing a deeper acknowledgment of the heroism of the Australian soldiers operating within Greek territory and thirdly, an awareness of the precise manner in which  the bond between Greeks and Australians was forged. 

This latter advantage seems to inform the writing of the work and to constitute its underlying ideology. It is significant in this respect that on the back cover of the book the author chooses to publish the following quotes from the descendants of Australian soldiers whose works and deeds are examined in the text: “My late father Syd never forgot the help of the Greek people during the campaign…,” and “Honouring the courage and friendship that bonds us, vividly told through my dear father’s story and that of many others in this book, God bless Australia and Greece, with ever deepening unity in democratic freedom.” 

One of Jim Claven’s stated aims is for the book to act as a field guide to the 1941 campaign. In the furtherance of this objective the author has conducted extensive field-work during multiple trips to Greece and his meticulous observations of the topography, with the generous provision of many original photographs, act as visual guides for the reader and enliven the text. One can almost feel the wind pushing salt spray through the trees, as one reads the vivid accounts and refers to Jim Claven’s pictures, taking the reader on a Grecian Adventure all of their own, and most likely, provoking the desire to visit these hallowed places themselves. The book’s stories and images thus cover the length and breadth of Greece, including many locations which don’t generally feature in Greek-Australian war commemorations. 

Of singular importance is the provision of largely unknown or unpublished photographs taken by the main protagonists of the book, the soldiers themselves. Not only to they provide a unique historical and sociological resource as to the conditions of the time, they also lend insight into the characters and sensitivities of the soldier’s themselves, with an analysis of why and how they chose to immortalise the scenes they did, speaking volumes as to their relationship to events and the local environment. My favourite photograph is of an immensely dignified elderly Cretan man leaning on a stick. A caption by the photographer, Private Sydney Grant reads: “The old….., a real terror for the plonk at Neon Corinth, May 1941.” Another photo, of two smiling Greek ladies is entitled “Two of the many Greek girls who fed us with bread an water standing at the entrance of an old church at Trachila Greece, 30 April 1941,” not only stand as evidence of the humanitarian assistance provided by the Greek people to Australian soldiers at great cost to themselves, but also give us pause to consider what might have happened to those ladies by way of reprisal, had Private Sydney Grant been captured and the photographs developed. Jim Claven also published photographs taken from a captured German prisoner by Private Sydney Grant, a unique record of the German occupation of Greece. Significantly, his experience of Greece during the short campaign so affected Grant that when he returned to Australia he named his farm "Kalamata" in honour of the place and the people who had helped him escape capture by the Germans. 

What emerges from Jim Claven’s research as contained in the book, is that there is an ANZAC trail running through Greece, one that deserves greater prominence within the Australian military narrative. To this end, the book is an invaluable resource for the establishment of tours to the regions in which the campaign was fought, while also supporting restoration work in locales hitherto ignored by the Greek and Australian authorities. Most importantly, it acts as a bridge between Greece and Australia, indicating where and under which circumstances the unique bond between our two countries was forged. For latter generation Greek-Australians, it constitutes an ideal way in which to rationalise both their hybrid identity. Its dignified and unassuming prioritising of the accounts of protagonists could also serve as a blueprint for the manner in which we commemorate those who were lost during the 1941 campaign. In this polyvalent matter, Jim Claven’s book is definitely a must read. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 June 2022