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Peter Makarthis

Greek Urn Presentation 1946

Broadcast comments on Canberra’s Ceremony

On July 19, a simple moving and symbolic ceremony took place in Canberra. A Corinthian urn of the Sixth century, B. C. was handed to the Prime Minister and other Australian representatives; and in it was soil from the graves of Australian soldiers buried in Athens. As the Venerable Regent, Archbishop Damaskinos wrote, “this ancient urn does not contain myrrh, as in olden times, but today carries earth from the graves of the gallant children of Australia who fell in Greece for the cause of freedom.”

The earth had been brought from Greece by Mr. Anargyros Stratigos, Vice President of the Greek Australian League; and Dr. Emil Vrisakis, Greek Consul-General in Australia, attending this solemn ceremony with other Greek representatives.
It is fitting – altogether fitting – that a University representative, and in particular one of the Faculty of Arts should be asked to appreciate this act. The Greeks, to whom the civilized world, owe so much, have always placed this reverential appreciation on their own soil. It is best summed up in a poem by Drossinis, a modern writer :-

“Soil for ever honoured, from whose stones were built
The Parthenon, the fairest temple ‘neath the sun;
Soil to Glory wedded on whose breast was spilt
Blood from the gallant Souli, blood from Marathon,
Soil that has unfolded the heroic slain
From bold Missolonghi, from Psara’s dark slope;
Soil whose magic, rouses in my flagging brain
Courage, pride and glory, energy and hope.”

And now there is this further tie for us, as Rupert Brooke wrote, almost in the premonition that in that April day of 1915 his body should be taken to the Grecian island of Skyros,

“there shall be,
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”

..the dust of men from one of the youngest nation who had gone to aid one of the oldest and who had become one with men of Salamis and Thermopylae.

If ever there was a comradeship in arms, it was that Greek campaign. When Italian soldiers brutally invaded Greece, Britain promised immediate assistance, and the Greeks drove back the much more numerous Italian hordes. But on April 6, 1941, German columns rolled across the frontiers of Greece, and General Papagos, knowing full well the appalling disparity of forces, swung his guns north. There would be but one end, and the Greeks, with the British, Australians and New Zealanders rushed across from the desert, fought down those historic passes, with flesh and blood against Nazi armour and air supremacy.

It was revealed at the Canberra ceremony that, when evacuation was inevitable, the Greek authorities issued an order of the day, ordering all Greeks to die in their tracks and not to retreat a further yard until every Allied soldier was back on his boat.
It was all only a few weeks, but in the wider pattern of the war nobody can say it was in vain. At that period, it was a desperate fight for time and, after the mainland fell, Crete held out until May 31. But the salient fact is that the German timetable was upset by those weeks, and invasion of Russia could not occur until June 22, with many of the irreplaceable summer weeks gone. When the final verdict comes to be given, too much time cannot be attributed to this fact.

Over and above that, there was the triumph of the spirit – the maintenance of a militarily hopeless stand; and we can never forget that, for a time after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Greece and the British Empire were the only Powers in the world keeping up a fight against the Axis. And we can apply to those Britons the words used by Caclamanos, one of Greece’s most gifted modern writers, who speaking of Byron – “A thousand years hence Greece will speak of them as ancient Greeks spoke of Achilles and Ajax.” It was Demetrius Caclamanos too, who so exquisitely beautifully in writing of Rupert Brooke’s “some corner of a foreign field,” he said “he does not lie in a foreign field.” Greek soil is not foreign for the British.

To the historian, the symbolism of the Canberra urn goes still deeper, for the men fighting in Greece became part of history in a very particular sense. They were on the soil of Pericles who wrote so many centuries ago – “We have a form of government, not fetched from the laws of our neighbouring States (nay, we are rather a pattern of others than they of us) which, because in the administration it hath respect not to a few but to the multitude, is called Democracy.” And it has been this spirit of basic human dignity for which the Greek tradition has stood down the ages, even in the bitter centuries of enslavement to the Turks.
Over and above that goes the ageless legacy of Greek thought, - the continuity and influence of which provide one of the basic values of human history. It is almost impossible to over-estimate the role played by the Greek philosophical and literary tradition in shaping civilization as we know it. We owe to this source so much of what we can best call “the art of living”; and this is timeless and universal. Here the Greek heritage is – and always has been – part of the heritage of mankind. As one of their modern poets sings –

“Amid the dust the spirit shines:
I feel it war with darkness in my brain.”

And all that – and infinitely more – is summed up in the Canberra urn. It is far more than a tribute indissolubly linking our two free peoples. General Papagos, who commanded the Greek armies in the war, sees in it a sign of “eternal gratitude and true attachment: but beyond that is our oneness with all that is finest in the Greek tradition.

Greece is continuity, Greece is history, Greece is immortal; and those who lie covered with such hallowed earth as in the urn, the words of Pericles Funeral Oration must apply in all their grandeur –

“For to men of renown all the earth is a sepulchre and not only does the inscription on their monuments in their own country testify their virtues, but even in a foreign land an unwritten record of the mind, rather than any monument, remains with every one for ever.”

Researched from Hellenic Herald (Sydney NSW)
1st August 1946.

Peter C.McCarthy
aka 'Skoulandris' Panayoitis Makarthis
Inverell September 2011

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