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August 26, 2020

When the Soldiers of Plastiras Wept for Hagia Sophia

By Nikolaos Zaimi

It was February 1919, when the then Lieutenant Colonel, Nikolaos Plastiras, one of the emblematic figures of the military and political history of Greece during the first half of the 20th century, together with the officers and soldiers of the 5/42 Evzoni Regiment, could not hold back their tears when, passing through Constantinople to go to the Ukrainian campaign, they saw Hagia Sophia. "And then it was that not an eye was without tears," Plastiras will write a few years later, remembering the event.

Departure for Ukraine

On January 15, 1919, the decision of the Greek government to take part in the allied campaign in Ukraine, with the participation of the I, II and XIII Division of the 1st Army Corps, under the orders of Lieutenant General Constantine Nieder, became known. Among the Regiments that would take part in the campaign was the Evzoni 5/42, which belonged to the XIII Division, whose command was recently taken over by Plastiras, leaving previously the 6th Infantry Regiment, with which his name was associated. On February 3, the departure of the units from the port of Eleftheri in Macedonia began in sections. Among them were the men of Plastiras, who boarded the Russian steamer "Emperor Nicholas". They crossed the Dardanelles and then arrived in Constantinople.

The Sight of Hagia Sophia and the Tears of the Soldiers

Arriving at the Queen of Cities for refueling, the steamer anchored next to the battleship "Averoff", which was chartering there as part of the allied military presence in Constantinople, after the signing of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918.

Shortly before the steamer that transported them entered the City, Plastiras gave the order for the trumpeters to mark the march of the flag. When they arrived in front of Hagia Sophia, all the men of the Regiment who were on deck at that time, could not hold back their tears before the spectacle that awakened in them glorious Byzantium.

The Childhood Dream That Came True

In "Memories from the Ukrainian Campaign in 1919", a book written by Plastiras in 1934, at the urging of his girlfriend Penelope Delta, he describes the feelings of those moments, both of himself and his men, as follows:

"I was finally at Hagia Sophia! I saw my most beautiful childhood dream come true! 6.5 years ago I started from Melouna, a lieutenant, with the small hope that I can see Thessaloniki! And now, after so many struggles and dozens of battles, to be at Hagia Sophia, and in fact to enter, after I jumped on top of a Turkish soldier! The next day, in the morning, the whistles of 'Emperor Nicholas', announcing the departure, brought us all to the deck. Soon we are at sea. The trumpets made various battle sounds mixed with cheering. We passed near the palaces of the sultans, leaving behind 'Averoff', like a mythical dragon that represents an entire tribe. And again the whole City on foot. Infinite flags and sheets shook from the houses to greet and bid farewell the flag of the homeland, which today's vigorous youth, imitating the once Argonaut Campaign, is led to the distant and arid places of the Black Sea."

With Eyes Fixed on the City

The same moments are described by a close friend of Plastiras, an officer of the Regiment at the time, Nikos Deas, in a work he published in 1976, titled "Twilight and Debris". He writes on pages 68-69 of his work:

"At sunrise we were all on deck. Thousands of eyes were fixed on the City in absolute silence. What can the tongue say when it is suddenly under Hagia Sophia? The hours passed and the crowd around our ship continued to besiege us with the same enthusiasm, the same cheers and calls to come down to release them permanently…. We passed by 'Averoff'. The National Anthem was heard echoing on its deck by its band, our flags were saluted. Caps, calpaks, fezes, handkerchiefs were thrown into the air from the decks of ships and from the crowds that were still following us with their boats."

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.