In 2013 we set out on a little pilgrimage around Roúmeli, or Central Greece, visiting sites related to the Greek Resistance.
We set out from Arachova, up on Parnassos, notable for a famous battle during the uprising against the Ottoman Empire. However there was another Battle of Arachova, which took place against the Germans in 1943. Italy had just capitulated to the Allies, leaving Italians who were jointly occupying Greece in an awkward position. The young captain of ELAS, Nikephoros (Dimitris Dimitriou), rode into Arachova with his men to negotiate the surrender of the Italian weaponry. The Italians delayed so as to give the Germans time to come up from Amfissa and Livadia, however Nikephoros was ready for them and ended up with not only the Italian arms but the Germans’ as well.
There are a couple of little incidents relating to this episode that I rather like. Nikephoros reports that when he and his men rode into Arachova, bearded and crisscrossed with ammunition belts, the Italian soldiers forgot all else and ran for their cameras. They asked the ELAS fighters to stay on their horses for the photos shoot but Nikephoros decided that this would be infra dig in the circumstances.
After the battle they loaded up the German and Italian lorries with all the booty, but had difficulty driving it through the narrow streets of Arachova. When a local was asked whether they could knock down and then rebuild the corner of his house, he said ‘Knock down the whole house if you need to!’
Nikephoros is famous for breaking out 60 inmates, including his own father, from the prison in the nearby town of Leivadia.
We drove over Parnassus to Agoriani or Eftalofos,
and saw where Nikephoros is buried.
We stopped at Lilea where there is a museum dedicated to Diamantis, another famed leader of ELAS Parnassidos, who died in the civil war. The man with the key was away so we took a rain check, as Lilea is close to Arachova which is where we base ourselves in Greece.
Then on to Lamia, birthplace of the emblematic figure of the Greek Resistance, Ares Velouchiotis.
Lamia is known for its attractive squares, at least four within a small radius. This statue of Ares is in People’s Square, and we dined there that night.
We spent the afternoon hiking up to the Resistance museum, which was closed indefinitely, like many others at the time. This was not the only disappointment. In the grounds of the building was an orange tree, covered in the most beautiful, brightly coloured fruit. Oh well, if the locals don’t appreciate them, we thought …. Back in the hotel, one mouthful revealed that they were the most sour, bitter, inedible fruit imaginable!
The andates have gone to the mountains
The brave young men of Roúmeli
And the bravest of them all
Everyone says is Ares (andartiko song)
Ares was the man responsible for creating the resistance army ELAS. Due in part to the discipline he imposed on the andartes (ELAS partisans) and the law and order he created in the countryside, he was loved and trusted by a large section of Greece, above all in his chief stamping ground of Roumeli. A large section of the country became ‘Free Greece’ where the Germans and the Italians could only move with a great number of troops. This improved the lives of the inhabitants immensely, amongst other things reducing the confiscation of food by the occupation authorities.
Forty thousand people from Lamia and the surrounding villages crowded into Freedom Square in Lamia to hear Ares’ historic speech after liberation.
We retraced our steps somewhat to visit the Gorgopotamos Bridge, blown up in a joint effort by ELAS with British saboteurs and also the smaller Greek organisation EDES created by the British under their chosen man Zervas (Syria watchers should think FSA). Greek and British reports show clearly that Ares was the genius behind the military operation, EDES ineffectual ,and Zervas worse than useless.
Nikephoros writes that when Ares presented his operational plan to the British and Zervas, it was accepted without change. However Nikephoros himself objected, because his only role was to captain the reserve troops. Ares response was ‘Shame on you Nikephoros, as a military man don’t you know that battles are always won by the reserves!’, and then ‘are you so sure of the competence of the men of the good General [i.e. Zervas]?’ Nikephoros was unconvinced, but as Ares suspected, the EDES troops were not up to the task entrusted to them, to take the less heavily guarded end of the bridge, so Nikephoros’s troops had to go in and save the operation.
The BBC made no mention of either ELAS or Ares when it reported the operation but described Zervas’ contribution in glowing terms…
We drove up through the Carpenissi valley, west of Lamia. First port of call was to the ‘Hut of Stefanis’ outside Sperchiada. In May 1842 Ares and a handful of men set out from the hut to start the armed struggle against the German/Italian/ Bulgarian occupation. The hut is now a little museum.
On to Domnista, famous as the place where Ares publicly announced the struggle against the occupation. On 7 June 1942 he and his small band of about 15 made as dramatic an entrance as they could into the village, preceded by the Greek flag and singing, and then Ares addressed the locals about resistance and also law and order. At that time he repeated this many times in the villages around, moving round at a punishing speed so as to give the impression that there were several groups of andartes in the area.
They came down this road. Behind the car on the corner is a kafeneio where we had coffee. The owner was eight when Ares came but still remembers him talking about what ELAS intended to do to rapists, thieves and murderers.
At Korischades is ‘The Old School House’, now a museum, which was the base for the ‘Government in the Mountains’, established in March 1944. The actual name was the more modest Political Committee of National Liberation, but it held near-nationwide elections, in which 1,800 people voted. (In the Greek elections of 1936 only 1 million voted).
There was a very good argument for seeing this ‘Government’ as the only legitimate one for Greece at the time, but the political leadership chose instead to throw its lot in with the British sponsored ‘Government of National Unity’ at the Lebanon Conference in May 1944. The Prime Minister was to be George Papandreou, whose party had won about 6% of seats in the 1936 elections.
Left: Good luck Duce!; Right: Good luck Fuhrer!
Mikro Chorio’ is the place of a famous battle by ELAS under Ares against the Italians, featuring in the ‘Hymn to Ares’ aka as the ‘Mikro Chorio Hymn’.
The mountains groan, the sun darkens
Wretched Mikro Chorio once again faces grief.
But golden swords flash, rifles take aim.
Ares is waging war, with his brave young andartes
Come o faithless Italian, ridiculous Mussolini
And consider what will happen here
You do not face the old and sick to butcher today
Nor shamefaced girls, Nor villages to burn,
Nor mothers to tyrannise in the market place.
What you have before you today is Capetan Ares
Who is as fast as the eagle, as the wild wind
And kills traitors with his mighty sword.
Word of the ELAS’s victories against the Italians, like that of Mikro Chorio and Gorgopotamos, spread throughout Greece like wildfire.
Ares took his surname from Mount Velouchi, which dominates the Carpenissi Valley. Seen here from near Mikro Chorio
We could have stayed longer in the area, as Megalo Chorio is particularly appealing, however …
Our final destination was to be the Fango Gorge, Mesouda, Ares’ place of death. Mesouda is deep in the Agrapha Mountains north of the Carpenissi valley. Rather than go round on the main road of Western Greece, we decided to take a ‘short cut’ through mountains.
The Agrapha are spectacular, offset by the most beautiful green valleys.
In fact Agrafa means uncharted, and though things have improved since Ottoman times it is still very difficult to navigate, with my 1990s map way out of date. The idea was to get to Mesouda in the evening and whip down to the Fango Gorge before sunset. We didn’t arrive until about 10pm (fortunately as it turns out) and then as there was no accommodation we had to look elsewhere for a bed. It was a shame that we couldn’t stay in Mesouda because there was a very popular tavern filled with friendly people and it would have been great to eat there.
Back at Mesouda the next morning we found a sign to Fango Gorge. An elderly lady told us that we needed to take the car and then walk for a bit. We drove down a terrible road and then when it gave out walked down to the Acheloos River. Very pretty but could see no signs of anything relating to Ares.
Eventually we returned to the car, very disappointed. Then we noticed an arrow in red paint pointing right. This was followed by red splotches on trees and rocks. The ground became rougher and rougher,with some difficult and scary-looking slips. Fortunately we had our walking shoes on, but I didn’t think to go back for my water bottle.
Late middle age is a funny time to take up mountaineering …
After some serious rock climbing we arrived at a very pretty little gorge with rocks and waterfalls.
The only thing we noticed here was more red splotches, so after a drink, onward … and onward.
We wound up the mountain for about two hours but when faced with yet another stretch of sun-baked scree we gave up, fearing sunstroke. We lost the trail back once or twice but finally found ourselves back at the stream.
After drinking as much water as we could we collapsed in the shade, somewhat disconsolate but telling ourselves that at least we had some idea of the terrain that the andartes travelled over, often with terrible or no (!) footwear .
It was about this point that Ross asked, ‘What’s that behind you?’. I turned round and read out slowly ’16-6-1945 Here fell the First Captain of ELAS, Ares Velouchiotis.’ !!
‘Wind in the mountains, black moon in the hearts, come and take for yourself freedom with songs, guns and swords’. From the andartiko song ‘Heroes’.
Recovering at the kafeneio / taverna at Mesouda. Coffee at the unheard of price of 50c, but sadly it was exactly the wrong time for food.
From the outset of WWII Winston Churchill was determined to restore the ‘Greek’ monarchy, as the best one of ensuring British influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Reports from British agents in Greece that perhaps 90% of Greeks were opposed to the monarchy only strengthened his resolve. In October 1944 Churchill visited Moscow and he and Stalin formulated what is known as the percentage agreement, whereby after the war Britain would have 90% of influence in Greece and the USSR would have 90% influence over e.g. Roumania. A series of manoeuvres by the British and disastrous errors and capitulations by the Communist Party, who now controlled the progressive movement in Greece, led to the final disaster of the Treaty of Varkiza.
‘The British kicked us into the hole they had been digging for us’ (Manos Ioannidis)
Under the terms of the treaty ELAS disarmed – the other clauses are irrelevant as they were not honoured either by the British or the Greek politicians. There was certainly no attempt to disarm the right-wing gangs who had collaborated with both the Germans and the British and now roamed the countryside pillaging, bashing and murdering (this period is known as the White Terror). Members of ELAS were hunted down and murdered or tried as war criminals. Others were persecuted by the Stalinist leadership of the KKE (Greek Communist Party), who resented Ares for opposing the Varkiza agreement and ELAS members for defending his memory.
Nikephoros was sentenced to death but his father spent years campaigning on his behalf, even approaching the British commander at Gorgopotomos for support, and he was eventually released. Although he had previously been a regular officer in the army Nikephoros was now reduced to selling coffee round offices to support his family. Photis Mastrokostas, who was one of the people who set out with Ares from the ‘Hut of Stefanis’, fought at Gorgopotamos and stayed with Ares until his death, spent 16 years in prison, developed TB and died the week after his release. Diamantis was caught and executed during the civil war which followed (1946-49). Another hero of Gorgopotamos, Kostoulas, went to fight with the Democratic Army in the civil war but was arrested as an ‘enemy agent’ and either murdered on the orders of the leadership or committed suicide.
On a personal note, the father of my friend Charikleia in Arachova was a member of the resistance and after the war spent 18 months in prison. Her uncle Charalabos was killed in the civil war and both Charikleia and her brother Babis are named after him. Her mother was also active in the resistance movement and like many Greek women was beaten by right wing gangs during the White Terror.
Death of Ares
It seems that Ares committed suicide, but there is some debate over whether he had already been shot. Although he was being systematically hunted down by right-wing forces (some say with the help of the Communist Party), many people find it hard to understand why he would commit suicide rather than fight to the end. One suggestion is that he was cut to the quick by the news that he had lost his Communist party membership. However given that he despised the party leadership this doesn’t seem likely.
The noose was closing in; many of his companions were captured within hours. No-one was able to prevent the desecration of his body – his head was cut off and hung from a lamppost in Trikala for some days. Ares always avowed that he would never fall into the hands of the British or their agents. It could be that he was struck by one hostile bullet and decided to finish it himself.
Failing that scenario, there is another, which seems quite probable if you actually go to the Gorge and see where he fell. Is it purely a coincidence that he died in this beautiful little gorge, with rocks, river, waterfalls, and the mountains looming around him and across the Acheloos River? Knowing that the end was inevitable, did he actually choose to take his last breathe here, and made his way here for that purpose?
It was Ares that suggested the name ELAS, pronounced identically to the older name for Greece, Ellas. He chose for himself the names Ares, from the god of war, and Velouchiotis, after the most magnificent mountain in the Carpenissi Valley. To choose to die in the Fango Gorge could well be another example of his fine judgement.