Monday, 25 August 2014

Aitken's Lemnos: a transformative memory of the Aegean war

The words we choose to use have a huge power over our imagination. When I hear words like “Greek islands” or “the Aegean” my mind conjures up visions of beaches, olive trees and sunlight. Even though my knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome is fairly weak, I still sense the evocative and historical power of the ancient place names of the Aegean region. Islands such as Lemnos and Samothrace contain relics of a history which goes back thousands of years, and it is this very ancient history itself which allows our imaginations to wander and dream: myths of figures such as Hephaestus, the Greek god who was cast out of Olympus and fell into water near the coast of Lemnos. Jason and the argonauts also rested here, and were tempted to stay there by the women who ruled the island at the time. Further back in time the mists are even thicker and the legends more enigmatic: the ancient Lemnians worshipped a duo of deities known as the Cabeiri, subterranean figures whose history is obscure. 

The young Hephaestus rescued by the ancient Lemnians

There are other words which can be associated with Lemnos of course: if you do a google image search of “Lemnos”, amongst the picturesque beaches and beautiful sunsets you will find several black and white images of soldiers dotted through the list. Lemnos was used as a base and a place of rest and recuperation for the Anzac soldiers who fought in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. The small island had recently become a part of Greece in 1912 (the “First Balkan war” between the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan League). The Allies could base themselves here, not far from the Dardanelles, and launch their attacks against the Turks in Gallipoli.

Sarpi camp, Lemnos 1915

There is a deep and I think quite profound incongruity between the Aegean of ancient history and the Gallipoli of 1915. We have trenches, dysentery and barbed wire on one side of the divide and legends, poetry and ruined temples on the other. A vast tapestry of antiquity, with hundreds and thousands of years of empires and evolving cultures and traditions. A tiny piece of land, cut into sharp and rocky ravines and gullies, where over the course of less than a year tens of thousands of men fought and died in one of the most horrific and tragic battles of the first world war. A history of indigenous peoples – Greek, Roman, Turkish, Thracian etc, with their own conflicts and their own development on their own land. An imported conflict, from the centres of Western imperialism in Germany and Britain to the shores of Ottoman Turkey.

This striking contrast is a major element in Alexander Aitken's 1963 memoir Gallipoli to the Somme. Aitken was a very talented and learned young man, who was later to become a famous mathematician. He had prodigious powers of memory, and was also something of an aesthete. He was a lover of classical music, and smuggled his violin into the trenches with him and played it whenever he had the opportunity. Aitken's education provided him with a deep sense of the classical history of the Aegean region, and his chapter on Lemnos is full of references to antiquity.

The point of view of the author is somewhat ambiguous: he states in his 'Author's note' at the beginning of the text that his book was originally written in 1917, just after he arrived back in New Zealand. The text was then revised in 1930, and finally revised again and published in 1963. So there are several stages of recollection, and several layers of text which it is not possible to distinguish with certainty. The 'Lemnos' section however bears the traces of the older Aitken – he mentions at one point his relative ignorance on ancient Lemnos, being familiar with the Hephaestus myth but not much else. The fact that his account is overflowing with classical references indicates that this text is the attempt of an older man to come to terms with his war memories.

He arrived in Lemnos in the final stages of the Gallipoli campaign. Thousands had died already, and the young Aitken very quickly realises the immensity of the slaughter and horror which awaits him across the sea. The evidence for this bleak view is in the eyes and demeanour of the survivors and the wounded:

These men, who had gone to bed so early the night before, were seen by daylight to be listless, weak, emaciated by dysentery, prematurely aged. They had suffered also in nerves. The pastoral silence of the ancient island was felt to be deceptive and sinister; it was unnatural to walk abroad at large without the fear of sudden death. They were suffering […] from an induced agoraphobia …

Although he realises the enormity of the war, and presumably the likelihood of his own death in the trenches he is about to enter, Aitken does not suffer from the same fear of open places, and revels in the beauty and peace of the quiet island. There is a tension in Aitken's account of his Lemnos memories: he actually points out very vehemently that the brutality and horror of trench warfare is completely at odds with any sort of romantic or poetic description of war, and that such falsifying descriptions are indeed insulting to the memory of those who died:

Active service permanently removes any taste for the conventional poetry of war. Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' is so much painted cardboard, and Chesterton's 'The Battle of Lepanto' merely a cause of wonder that a grown man could write it. But the classics suffer too, and, with me at least, much classical allusion, simply because Troy and Tenedos are too near Cape Helles, and Imbros and Samothrace too near Sulva and Anzac; so that in future if ever I should read of Leander swimming in the Hellespont, or the vainglorious Byron imitating him, my thoughts would soon wander to George Pilling and his group lying on the eastern top of Chunuk Bair and looking down on those very Narrows.

This doesn't stop him, however, from writing a chapter overflowing with references to Milton, the Aeneid and various other classical sources. In the early part of the 'Lemnos' chapter Aitken spends a few paragraphs describing in detail the singing game of a group of Lemnian children, and his speculative thoughts about the linguistic origins of the Lemnian dialect. It is as if his mind was doing everything it could to avoid and postpone the inevitable memory of Gallipoli. His intellectual imagination seems to intervene upon reality and demand an alternative. This is a doomed project, and Aitken cannot literally change the past, or his memories, but there is still a powerful sense of subjective transformation in the text. This is hinted at as Aitken tries to justify his intellectual musings:

I dwell on such slight recollections, which have little intrinsic interest, as if reluctant to pack up and leave for Gallipoli, which indeed I have temporarily forgotten. But to write of Lemnos is to wish, in spite of the lack of archaeological remains, to revisit it, and to visit also its island neighbours so musically named: Skyros (where Rupert Brooke lies), Eustratios, Imbros, and Samothrace.

Another aspect of these incongruous intellectual musings is the oddity of Aitken himself, as a young man who did not share the interests and perspectives of many of his fellow countrymen in uniform. When training in Egypt he avoids the nightlife and temptations of Cairo completely, and when he gets to Lemnos he prefers the company of the hills and the indigenous people to drinking with the other soldiers.

These islanders made no advances of friendship or intimacy; in particular there was not the slightest opportunity for license. We noted their Puritan demeanour, frugality, and scrupulous honesty. The usual Eastern haggling and chaffering was entirely absent. I found the quiet villages, where nothing happened to mark any day from any other, very congenial. Others of the Platoon might sample the koniak of the inn at Portianos, its walls decorated with stiff garish paintings of their battles of liberation – Kavallah and Navarinoi; I was content to walk the hill-side by Agriones, to watch the matrons sitting at house-doors in the sun, gossiping and treadling their spinning-wheels.

The section on Lemnos which I think is the most significant is Aitken's recollection of a long walk he took with a friend to the seaport town of Kastro. The Anzac soldiers were based in a tiny village called Sarpi, Aitken and his friend 'Cicero' spend a day wandering through the ancient hills, exploring ruins and acting more like tourists than soldiers. They discover a village called Thermae, and bathe in the hot springs there. Aitken muses on the Hephaestus myth, as re-imagined by John Milton in his famous poem “Paradise Lost”:

Thermae! How pleasant to imagine that this might have been the spot where Ausonian Mulciber1

Dropt from the Zenith like a falling Star

On Lemnos, th' Aegean Ile;

Satan, or Ausonian Mulciber, or Hephaestus falling from paradise

They explore together the ancient citadel on the cliff overlooking the ocean, and look out southwards towards a small island. The name of this island, according to Aitken, is highly evocative and significant:

All islands and mountains in this region bear sanctified names, but it may be that this one, farther from the mainland than any other, out at the very centre of the northern Aegean, is the Iona or Lindisfarne of these parts. No two maps seem to agree upon the spelling of its name; it is Hagios Eustratios, or Hagios Stratios, or Ayios Evstratios, or Eustratios simply, or Agio Strati, Ai Strati or even the Turkish Bozbaba. On a map of very ancient times it is Chryse. But names tell very little. If ever – few things are more unlikely – I should set foot again in ancient Myrina, I would instruct myself beforehand as to who or what St. Eustratios was, and what part Lemnos, Eustratios and Samothrace played when the learning of antiquity fled westward from the Turks after 1453. I might also learn the history of a temple-like ruin, in what appeared to be cream-coloured marble, beyond the extreme northern angle of the barracks. […]

There is a palpable sense of warmth and nostalgia in these recollections, which seem to be taking place in a sort of parallel universe, where Aitken is a young scholar on holiday, soaking up the historical associations of the landscape.

This day, uneventful as all beautiful days are, has kept an abiding freshness, fixed in memory as it is by euphonious and evocative names – Agriones, Thermae, Kastro, Eustratios – places never to be revisited, never to be thought of again without affection.

Aitken's wistful curiosity, made even more potent by the impending doom and misery of Gallipoli, inspired me to find out what I could about this mysterious island. According to Wikipedia, the island has three names: Agios Efstratios or Saint Eustratius, or colloquially Ai Stratis. Saint Eustratios was a ninth century monk who lived on the island as an exile from the Byzantine Empire, because he was opposed to the iconoclastic policies of the rulers. In the 1970s the island was used as a prison for political prisoners.

The following chapter, which describes Aitken's actual Gallipoli experiences, is told in a very matter-of-fact and unadorned style. He seems to feel obliged to put the facts down on paper, but the very nature of these facts are of a lowly and banal order. Trench warfare is miserable, dangerous and boring. He emphasises the mundanity and boredom of everyday life in the trenches, interspersed with random and hideous acts of violence:

I set down these particulars once and for all, not to be referred to again, dull as they must seem to anyone except a New Zealand infantryman who had manned those terraces. But the greater part of modern war, when of the static type, consists precisely of such monotony, such discomfort, such casual death. And so let it be stripped of glamour and seen for what it is.

Yet Aitken cannot help himself from straying from this austere stylistic protocol, and he continues to seek out any resonances or associations which will lift him above the narrow and mundane confines of the trenches themselves. These wilful acts of retrospective transcendence are a sort of intellectual rebellion against the tyranny of facts as they are remembered: Aitken, as an intellectual, can transform the substance of his memories through his learning. The closing paragraphs of the 'Gallipoli to Lemnos' chapter, which describes the evacuation of the peninsula in December 1915, contains a series of references to the legend of Troy and Virgil's Aeneid. He clearly states that “I was at that moment deaf to every classical echo”, so I think it is valid to claim that Aitken is involved, consciously or otherwise, in a kind of transformative project. As much as he is the subject of a series of brutal and violent memories without any obvious redeeming features, he is also the author of transformed memories which reject the narrow confines of the facts of experience themselves, and allow for an alternative set of meanings and interpretations. 


This mediation of memory for Aitken has a profound connection with place names and geography. History, culture and poetry inhere in the names of the places Aitken mentions. The final paragraph actually goes so far as to dissolve “Gallipoli” into its Turkish variant “Gelibolu”, and the poetic and classical evocations are almost like a spell which Aitken is trying to cast on himself:

The wrench of this leave taking, though not acute then, being just dull bewilderment, though driven under for many months by the incessant mobility, change, or routine of active service, returned on me at length, and lastingly. I have never since then been able to pass a map, small or large, of the Aegean region. First in the north-west it is three pronged Chalcidice that catches the eye, the trident of wonderfully named peninsulas – Kassandra, Sithonia, and Athos (three fingers pointing south-east from Macedonia to Lemnos), and Eustratios and the northern Sporades. For a moment the eye may linger on the mouth of the Struma, the Strymon of Orpheus and the Virgilian Cranes, but it flits quickly over 'Imroz' to 'Gelibolu', the uncaptured city of the Hellespont once known as Gallipolli. On the west coast of the peninsula Gaba Tepe and Ari Burnu are as before; the name Anzac naturally does not appear. Last of all the eye moves north-west again to Samothrace, no longer Semadrek but Samothraki. Like Lemnos, since the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 it is now not Turkish but Greek once more; but for the rest of my life I cannot imagine it as belonging to any country that ever was.

(All quotes are taken from Alexander Aitken, Gallipoli to the Somme (1963)

1“Ausonian Mulciber” is the latinised version of Vulcan / Hephaestus

iThis is a reference to the 1827 battle of Navarino, in which the Greeks win independence from the Ottoman empire. Aitken seems to view recent history as being “garish”, whereas the ancient past is a more honourable and spiritual time.

No comments:

Post a Comment