Lemnos 1915: Then & Now — large format photo book now available for sale


Portianou (Greek: Πορτιανού) is a village on the Greek island of Lemnos. In 1915 it was known variously as Portiano and Portianos.

Being near the hospitals on Turks Head and the rest camps at Sarpi, it saw many visitors from the sisters and soldiers.

The cemetery beside its church is the final resting place for 347 Commonwealth dead, including 2 Canadian sisters.


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The cemetery

Portianos Military Cemetery was begun in August 1915 and used until August 1920. The cemetery now contains 347 Commonwealth burial of the First World War and five war graves of other nationalities. Two Canadian Sisters are among them, lonely here at peace (Vera Brittain).

The Cemetery at Lemnos. Reading the Burial Service.

The Cemetery at Lemnos. Reading the Burial Service. – A.W. Savage

The firing after the Burial. Lemnos Is.

The firing after the Burial. – A.W. Savage

Nurses, soldiers, graveyard, 1915

c.1915, Joseph Cecil Thompson, 9th Battalion A.I.F. – presumed photographer

The Canadian Sisters

Photo from the papers of Canadian Sister Helen L. Fowlds posted by Trent University Archives. A number of the other photos may be of Lemnos.

Our first funeral

Miss Munroe of #3 died at dusk the evening of the 7th of September […]

We all stood outside while they arranged the transport and then the soldier was carried out to the other waggon. #3 men were paraded and fell in after the waggons, and the officers after them.

It had been arranged previously that no Sisters would go to the grave and it was perhaps wise but it seemed too bad to see her go away without a single woman near her. In France all the English Sisters in Boulogne went to the grave when their Sisters died in Wimereux. But when they (#3) didn’t go, we couldn’t very well.

It was one of the hottest days we’d had and the dust rose in clouds. As the little procession vanished over the hill we started home and kept it in sight till it crossed the river. It surely was a sad sight and awfully hard on her people to have her die out here. Such a desolate place for a woman to be buried and everything so different from what it would have been at home.

The dirty, springless waggon, the half wild mules needing the whip every few yards to keep them from breaking into a gallop, the white cap fluttering in the wind, the poor little Tommy in the next waggon with spades etc. that they did not trouble to hide, “the foot sore firing party and the dust and stench and staleness”, the millions of flies, the squad of buglers that joined the procession farther along, all jarred terribly on one’s nerves. It was so absolutely matter of fact, and military, strictly active service.

Somewhere across the valley they have a graveyard, and later in the afternoon we heard the firing of the Salute and the “Last Post”.

It got me terribly, and every night since when they blow “Lights out” from all the camps around I think of that “Last Post” wailing across the valley. After all it is only “Lights Out” but that morning seems so far away.

Diary of Canadian nursing sister Helen Fowlds

The church

In 1835, during the diocese of the metropolitan (bishop) Nectarios, as it is noted on the inscription, the main church of the village was built dedicated to “the Entry of the Most Holy Mother to the Temple” (Εισόδια της Θεοτόκου). In 1858 when Conze passed through the village he admired the colors of the church, which housed a marble sarcophagus. In a later inscription, during 1875, Pantelis Zanis is recorded as the master builder credited with the erection of this church. The same builder is credited with the building of churches in the villages of Atsiki (1868), Plati and Varos. The church was decorated by Aggelos Binetas from the village of Sarpi.

The Church, a triclit basilica, is impressive as it towers over the village, built on a small hill on the northwestern area of the village. It has an impressive screen (τέμπλο) with elaborate carvings, gold plated and icons painted by Gregoris Papamalis. The columns of the outer narthex are made from marble and most probably belonged to an earlier building. The bell tower is a later addition.

Wikipedia, accessed 15 May 2011

An Australian Funeral. Col Fiaschi, Col Dick & other 3rd A.G.H. Officers & Sisters are here seen. Lemnos. 1915.

An Australian Funeral. Col Fiaschi, Col Dick & other 3rd A.G.H. Officers & Sisters are here seen. Lemnos. 1915.

1915. Lent by Major J M Herbert. AWM C01525

Two unidentified soldiers admire the interior of a Greek Orthodox church on the Aegean island of Lemnos. C.1915. Lent by Major J M Herbert, 3rd Battalion. AWM C01424

September 1915. Lent by Major H Jacobs, 3rd Battalion. AWM C01919

Note: Contemporary photo that shows this church


Interesting and novel to Australians

A visit to the Greek Orthodox Church was interesting and novel to Australians. Dingy from the outside, but very elaborate inside with its painted panels, candlesticks. and galleries. The seats appeared to be uncomfortable being inarrow boards placed across what ap. peared to be diminutive horse-boxes, designed, I should imagine to promote insomnia among sleepy worshippers during dry sermons. The congregation when I looked in was one layman, who was singing a melancholy chant, while a gorgeously robed priest walked about perfuming the air with incense.

Behind, and attached to the church, is a charnel house, filled with bones and grinning skulls, and entire skeletons scantily clad in a few torn rags which waved in a ghastly manner in every draught of ait. These, we were informed, were victims of Turkish descents on the island in bygone days. The cemetery adjoining sported one tombstone, on top of which more skulls were displayed, along with a glass of water, from which the departed spirits could quench their thirst. Perhaps a wise provision.

Near this village is an ancient fountain known as Nero’s fountain, which looked as if it could easily date back to the period of its namesake. Owing to the scarcity of good drinking water on Lemnos Island, tracks from all directions led to this fountain, and long were the queues, both civil and military, that waited there.

Other villages handy to the camp were Simandria and Kondia. These were built on the hillsides, consequently the streets, or rather the lanes, are steep and narrow, and in some cases mere flights of steps, and in a very unsavoury condition. The churches were on the highest points, and from the lower ground seemed to be actually in touch with Heaven. These villages boast smoking clubs, where members bring their own mouthpieces for attachment to a “narghile” – a Turkish apparatus for smoking tobacco, in which the smoke is drawn through water by means or a long flexible tube.

Edmonds A.H., “The Anzacs at Lemnos”, Reveille 1 April 1935

Our photos from Portianou, 2011

Published Sunday May 15, 2011 · Last modified Friday January 20, 2012
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence

We're pleased that people are using this website as a source for locations, quotes and other primary source material. It's why we published our notes on the web. But we'd very much appreciate a footnote or credit. Much of the hospital (and other) location information for Lemnos and the Western Front is original research -- thank you, from Bernard & Cheryl