Decked out in his usual top hat, Eleftherios Venizelos wipes dust and sweat from his brow with a white handkerchief, a simple gesture that heads of state were allowed to do back then, unlike today. The date of this scene is June 14, 1917, and its shows Venizelos being sworn in as prime minister at Pedion tou Areos Park of the government that would just a couple of weeks later declare war on the Central Powers. Just behind him, we see buildings that have long been erased from human memory and a sight that appears truly bizarre to current residents of Athens: Strefi Hill, unbuilt save for a quarry on one flank, looking enormous.
This image is so striking that I ask Tassos Anastassiadis, the head of contemporary studies at the French School of Athens, to pause the video on his screen so I can take a closer look at the hill as it was 100 years ago, before it was consumed by rampant construction.
We are in his office, in the beautiful buildings of the Ecole Francaise d’Athene (the French School of Athens) on Didotou Street, on the border between Exarchia and Kolonaki, and he is putting the finishing touches on the catalogue of a splendid exhibition being put together by the school at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Sreet annex, from September 14 to November 11. “Athens 1917: Through the Eyes of the Army of the Orient,” comprises 110 photographs and two videos (including the one with the perspiring Venizelos).
This is valuable material, drawn from the photographic service of the allied force that was active in the Balkans during World War I and was known as the Army of the Orient. This multinational force was formed in 1915 and had its base in Thessaloniki, in a failed attempt to support Serbia. In 1917, 5,000 Frenchmen traveled down to Athens to give their support to Venizelos after he retook power and faced King Constantine. This is the first time the Athenian public has the opportunity to see dozens of photographs taken by two unknown French photographer soldiers which show the capital in that period. And the surprises abound.
Livestock and Horse-Drawn Carts
What we see is Athens before the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Asia Minor, with trams, carts and carriages in its streets, and even the flocks of sheep right in the city center (responsible for stripping the city’s hills of their brush). The houses are small and have red-tiled roofs, women are seen carrying water in clay jars and the ancient monuments exude that air more often associated with images from the Grand Tour that was so popular among western Europeans during the Ottoman occupation.
Day-to-day life, people, neighborhoods, relics of the past, buildings and streets, just as they were 100 years ago. But other than a showcase of a lesser-known part of the capital’s history, the exhibition also casts light on another chapter that has, until now, remained more or less in the dark.
Anastassiadis explains that, for Greece, the World War I period was basically sandwiched between another two major conflicts: The Balkan Wars and the Asia Minor Disaster. Add to this the period of National Division and we can start to see why our knowledge of the Great War is so sorely lacking. The events before and after it were so numerous and important, that they have taken up the lion’s share of research, historical documentation and history education in Greece. For most Greeks, the Civil War and World War II appear more relevant not only because they took place later, but because there has been a lot more public discussion about them.
There are countries like France, of course, which started designing its program of events, conferences and celebrations for the centennial in 2014. In this context, the French School has already set aside a four-year period of research, from 2016 until 2019, in order to shed more light on the role of the Army of the Orient.
“We found this amazing photographic material some time ago from two sources: the Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense and the Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine,” says Anastassiadis.
The EFA has another reason to organize this exhibition: it too was in the eye of the storm in the 1915-1917 period, as Greece’s pro-German King Constantine believed – and not without good reason, Anastassiadis says smiling – that its staff included spies working for the Allies. The result was the school was closed for six months after the crisis of the Greek Vespers of 1916, when the royalist government clashed with the Allies.
Anastassiadis adds, however, that the aim of the exhibition is not just to showcase events in the theater of war, but also a slew of important milestones. Few people, for example, know that hundreds of Africans came to Greece for the first time with the army, but also Asians from the French colonies. Greeks who were only accustomed with the different ethnicities that existed in the country in the Ottoman occupation were suddenly introduced to people, customs and traditions they had never seen before. It is worth noting that one point, the number of troops in Thessaloniki reached 650,000.
When the 5,000 Frenchmen came to Athens for Venizelos, King Constantine was forced to capitulate in regards with Greece’s neutrality in the war – thanks also to the naval blockades, of course.
“The Army of the Orient was known by some by the derogatory term ‘the gardeners of Thessaloniki’ because they believed it did not fight enough against the enemy, but the fact is that this army contributed to the treaty with Bulgaria that changed the course of the war,” says Anastassiadis. “The truth is that this is a fascinating story and we are very excited that Athenians have the opportunity to see these photographs.”
Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, www.benaki.gr. Opening hours are Thursday & Sunday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Friday & Saturday 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.