That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Battle of the Philhellenes

Portraits of French Philhellenes: Jean de Jargow and batallion Captain Dania. / Wikimedia Commons

By William St. Clair / 05.10.2013
Senior Research Fellow, Institute of English Studies
University of London

The eight shiploads of volunteers from Marseilles reached Greece at roughly monthly intervals beginning in November 1821. Other volunteers continued to arrive independently. They landed at different places, at Navarino, Calamata, Missolonghi, Monemvasia, and elsewhere. One party mistakenly put in to Modon which was still in Turkish hands, thinking they were at Navarino, and the volunteers who had begun to disembark, had to scuttle back on board when the Turks opened fire.[1]

The Greeks greeted their unexpected visitors with surprise and incomprehension although they were already accustomed to some extent to the bizarre notions of the Franks. Usually, after it had been explained through interpreters that the visitors had come to assist in the struggle for freedom, a cautious welcome was arranged. Muskets were fired in salute, wine was produced, and an empty house was set aside for quarters. The volunteers, in their multifarious uniforms, marched ashore with some appearance of European drill sometimes to the beat of a drum. The welcome, though friendly, did not match up to the enormous expectations of the Europeans. They were affronted, as officers, at having to unload their own baggage and they had expected more than a bare, ruinous, vermin-infested house to live in. One expedition was so sure that all their problems were over once they set foot in Greece that they made a present of all their provisions to the ship’s captain and allowed the ship to leave, confident that they were free for ever from tedious ship’s biscuit.

The first Greeks that the volunteers met did not resemble men they had imagined from their schoolboy studies. To sit cross-legged on a bare floor swathed in shawls and smoking long pipes were manners more associated with Turks than with the descendants of Pericles. The attempts of the scholars to converse in Ancient Greek had no success.


[LEFT]: 13a. Commandant Dania Commander of the Battalion of Philhellenes.
[RIGHT]: 13b. Letter of Recommendation issued to ’Prince Alepso’ by the Stuttgart Greek Society. The text seems to read ’God save immortal Hellas. Germany and Leonides. The bearer of this letter, Mr. Ziziokaeto Aebso, a native of Argos, is on his way to Hellas to help in freeing her from the Turks. He is going to the Hellenic army in which he intends to serve. We call on all ships’ captains and harbour masters of the Greeks and elders of the towns to give him a friendly welcome, and convey him safely to the place where he is going as if the Government of Hellens had authorised it. At Stuttgart in Württemberg the 4 March 1822’. There follows the names of the signatories, transliterated into Greek characters, who are the leading members of the Greek Society, headed by Albert Schott, the President.

More disturbing facts soon came to their attention. An unpleasant smell hung around the towns which they soon discovered arose from the headless corpses lying outside the walls. Emaciated and frightened young women and boys were to be seen running around, half naked, among the ruins. Wild dogs and scavenging birds were everywhere. The Greeks at Navarino, eager at first to impress, told boastfully of the great massacre of a few months before. One Greek claimed to have personally killed eighteen Turks, another said he had stabbed nine men, women, and children in their beds. The volunteers were proudly shown the bodies of Turkish women who had been thrown from the walls a few days previously after being raped and then having their arms and legs cut off.[2] Far from being impressed, as the Greeks intended they should be, the volunteers were shocked and distressed at these sights; they were equally horrified at the open prostitution of the surviving Turkish boys and the unashamed offers of the Greeks to share their pleasures – another aspect in which the military customs differed from those of the West.[3]

The Greeks found the behaviour of the volunteers equally incomprehensible. No sooner had they landed than quarrelling broke out. Duels were frequent,[4] fought after heavy drinking over abstruse points of honour as at Marseilles, and although no one was actually killed, a few men were wounded and unfit for further activity. Since none of the expeditions, with the exception of Normann’s, had any acknowledged leader, the volunteers then split into the usual rival groups, French against Germans, Italians against French, Danes against Germans. Within days of their arrival some of the volunteers realized that they had made a mistake and decided to go home at the first opportunity. But as usual this was not easy to accomplish either because they had no money or because they were no longer welcome in their own countries. They clung to the belief that they had accidentally found themselves among untypical Greeks and that when they reached Hypsilantes or Mavrocordato their situations would improve. The expeditions quickly dispersed, some men preferring to wait on the coast, others choosing to go inland to try their fortune elsewhere.

The parties of volunteers who set off from the ports to seek the Greek Army soon found themselves in difficulties. In the early months, the Greek villages through which they passed welcomed them, gave them food and shelter, and guides for the next leg of their journey. By the spring of 1822, all over the Peloponnese small parties of Europeans and even one or two men travelling alone were to be found begging their way from village to village, either on their way to the Greek Army or on their way back. Food was already short, owing to the breakdown of the economy, and hospitality was given increasingly grudgingly. Besides, the country was covered by bands of armed Greeks, preying off the settled population. Although the newcomers did not realize it, many of the villages through which the Europeans passed had already had to provide for the earlier generation of volunteers who had come and gone in 1821.

As 1822 went on, the volunteers found the Greek villagers more unhelpful – or, as they invariably termed it, ungrateful. At some places the strangers were refused entry. At others, attempts were made to steal from them. In the open countryside they were occasionally attacked by robber bands. The old soldiers became less scrupulous about their methods, demanding food and shelter at the point of their bayonets and helping themselves to any livestock that came their way.

The food was hard and the accommodation primitive, but most of the volunteers failed to appreciate that they were lucky to get any assistance at all. They could not forget that they were officers, and they had firm ideas about the treatment that officers were entitled to expect. They were perpetually reminding the Greeks that they had come to fight for them, and were perpetually being told that, as nobody had asked them to come they should not expect anything. One wise old Greek remarked that the Europeans had not come for the sake of Greek freedom but for their own, a comment which had a disconcerting ring of truth.[5]

Soon most volunteers in Greece were complaining bitterly about their situation, cursing their stupidity in setting out, and despising every aspect of Modern Greek life. One Greek characteristic in particular aroused disproportionately passionate indignation. In village after village the visitors would be promised food and horses if they would only have patience until tomorrow; when tomorrow came some further excuse would be found to delay matters; when eventually the volunteers reached the seat of government the same pattern was repeated. Everything would be arranged, they were assured, if they would only wait. The volunteers never understood that the habit of making unfulfillable promises was simply an Eastern way of being polite.

Woodcut of Karl von Normann-Ehrenfels

General Normann’s expedition arrived at Navarino in February 1822. Many of the volunteers who had arrived in earlier ships made their way back to Navarino hoping to find a properly organized European force. They were sadly disappointed to find merely another disorganized band of individualists just as arrogant as they had been when they first arrived. When one of the old hands[6] passed an insulting remark about the Greeks, Normann said it was untrue and was at once challenged to a duel. A rich Hungarian nobleman who had been several weeks in Greece was punched[7] in the face and challenged to a duel to the death by a new arrival[8] when he claimed that he had heard him call his chief ’Normann’ instead of ’General Graf von Normann’. Another fight broke out over the refusal of the officer to address another as Monsieur de A.[9] Such quarrels were frequent. Drumhead courts were held to try to deal with troublemakers but none of the accused would recognize their jurisdiction. Court proceedings soon developed into brawls between French, and Germans. One or two unfortunates were beaten up and driven out of the town for alleged thefts or failure to pay debts. A pigsty was taken over as a place of punishment into which the drunken and the unruly could be thrown.[10] Normann looked on sadly and helplessly.

In spite of their curious behaviour, however, the volunteers still enjoyed great prestige simply because they were Europeans. The Greeks continued to believe that European military methods could somehow win victories and occasionally suggestions from the visitors were accepted. At Navarino Normann and about sixty volunteers were permitted to try to put their ideas into practice. An attempt was made to institute a regular watch on the walls of Navarino to guard against a surprise attack from Modon up the coast. The Greek leaders, however, were unable to prevail on the individual Greeks to obey. They insisted that there was no need to guard the walls at night or when it was raining since the Turks never ventured far at such times. To encourage the others, one Greek was bastinadoed for deserting his post, but the habits and beliefs of generations could not be altered by such simple methods. Soon the volunteers alone took over the whole defence of the town, sharing out the watch among themselves.

The usefulness of European military methods was soon put to the test. One day the watch reported that a Turkish fleet of sixty-three vessels had appeared off the town and a simultaneous attack by land was being mounted from Modon. The Greeks were terrified. The fortifications of the town had not been repaired and there were only provisions for two days. The town was filled with the noise of wailing as the inhabitants prepared to leave. But the volunteers, at last in a situation which they understood, greeted the opportunity of fighting with enthusiasm. The gates were shut to prevent the Greeks from leaving, the few cannon were manned by artillery officers, and with difficulty a few shots were fired. The Turks, astonished at this unexpected show of resistance, hastily retired.[11] Like Baleste’s defence of Calamata in similar circumstances in August 1821 the action was pure bluff, but it was successful. It produced the same reaction among the Greeks – exaggerated respect for European military methods, coupled with a renewed suspicion that these methods might eventually be used to impose the sort of government on themselves which they would not welcome.

Normann had arrived in Greece expecting to be greeted as a saviour. He expected that the Government would make him Commander-in-Chief and give him general direction of the war. He sent a few officers to Hypsilantes to announce his arrival and the success of his first encounter. But he had no appreciation of the intense rivalry between the various Greek leaders. He did not understand that the Europeanized Greeks, Hypsilantes and Mavrocordato, who still nominally formed the government, had scarcely any resources and no authority; and that Colocotrones and the other captains had no wish to encourage the formation of a regular army. Normann waited impatiently at Navarino for the expected invitation.

While he waited it was decided to attempt an attack on Modon. His confident officers were sure that such a weakly defended fortress could easily be taken by a small disciplined and determined force. A plan was accordingly drawn up and a few hundred Greeks agreed to submit to the guidance of twenty-two Europeans. But as usual the two types of fighting could not be combined. The Greeks began to shout and fire off their weapons blindly from the hip before they were even within range of Modon. A Turk who had carelessly been walking outside the walls when they arrived was captured, stripped, and killed, but as soon as the alarm went up that the Turks were about to attack, the Greeks made a hasty retreat and the Europeans had to scramble home as best they could. That was the extent of the battle. The head of the Turk was taken back to Navarino on a pole and kicked around the streets.[12] A few days later the headless body of a young German lieutenant[13] who had been killed in the retreat was discovered by a shepherd, half eaten by dogs. The incident was hailed as a triumph by the Greeks. As for the Europeans it merely served to confirm their opinion that the Greeks were not only barbarians but cowards as well.

Meanwhile numerous small parties of volunteers had wandered all over Southern Greece. Generally they had gone to Argos (or later Corinth) where the Government and the remains of the Regiment Tarella were still maintaining a desultory siege on Nauplia. But when they discovered that there were no commissions to be had in the Regiment and that there was already a long waiting list for the Greek regular army (which showed no signs of being organized) they wandered off elsewhere. Some became little more than armed tourists. Inevitably, many drifted to Athens where the Acropolis – contrary to the reports in Europe – was still in Turkish hands. Everyone wanted to share the honour of being present at the capture of the most famous fortress in Greece. Attempts were made to mount artillery on the hills opposite the Acropolis but the few shots which they succeeded in firing over the wall caused no damage. Then in March 1822 about a dozen volunteers devised a bold scheme to take the fortress by storm. Like so many of their schemes it depended on a degree of coordination and discipline which it was unreasonable to expect. A mine was to be exploded under one part of the wall and the Greeks, led by the volunteers, were to make an immediate assault through the breach. The mine did explode according to plan and the volunteers rushed forward. An eighteen-year-old Prussian lieutenant was first up the ladder and succeeded in planting his lance in the breach.[14] But the Greeks could not overcome their aversion to venturing away from cover. As usual the handful of European volunteers were left to face the Turks alone and they had to retire at once. The Mecklenburg Count Stralendorf was killed in this encounter. He was given a splendid military funeral and the tomb of the scholar John Tweddell in the Theseum was broken open to provide a suitable grave. Several other Europeans were wounded.

Among the volunteers of 1822 there were a number of naval officers, who hoped for commissions in the Greek fleet and made for Hydra. A French naval captain who had been retired in 1814, Count Jourdain, had set himself up as ’admiral’ of the naval volunteers in Marseilles and claimed to be able to dispense commissions. But once they arrived in Greece his authority vanished and everyone tried to make his own claim. A dozen or so volunteers of all nationalities were taken on and joined the crews of the warships. But they were soon disgusted with the Greek methods of warfare. Hastings, a former British naval officer, saw a Turk being dragged round the deck by his beard then thrown overboard and struck at by boathooks. A Dutchman[15] was present when some Turks were rescued from the sea in an unconscious state. They were carefully revived and then tortured, killed, and mutilated.

As with the land forces, the Greek sailors were not inclined to put themselves under the guidance of their self-appointed advisers. The Europeans all had their own ideas about improving the navigation and the gunnery and the preparation of the ammunition but the Greeks, understandably in view of their consistent success, stuck to their own methods. Soon many of the naval volunteers had changed their minds and went off to try their fortune on land. Their general conclusion – apart from the usual complaints about Greek cowardice, barbarity, and ingratitude – was that the Greeks ’put the Franks in a position where it is impossible to be of any assistance to them and then complain of the uselessness of the Franks’.[16] As in 1821, it was the universal belief of the volunteers landing at the various ports of Greece that they would soon find the Greek Army in which they would be given commissions. The aim of those who set off from the coast was to find this Army. In fact there were only the remains of the one battalion of regular troops that had been raised by Baleste and was now commanded by Colonel Tarella. After the failure of the attack on Nauplia in December 1821 and the fiasco when the Acrocorinth fell in January 1822, the Regiment had steadily lost prestige. Throughout the winter it had remained first at Argos and then at Corinth, the only force directly controlled by the Government of Hypsilantes and Mavrocordato. Throughout its short existence the Regiment had received no pay. It consisted only of about three hundred Greeks and Italians, half-clothed, half-starved, and half-armed, almost all refugees from the Turkish reprisals against the Greek communities in Asia Minor or from the unsuccessful Italian revolutions. They were men who stayed in the Regiment because they had no choice. Many of the original Regiment had died of disease, malnutrition making them more vulnerable to the plagues which swept the country, others had joined the armed bands of the captains. But there were always enough wretches for whom the chance of an occasional meal was enough to sustain their loyalty. After the destruction of Chios hundreds more refugees had arrived in mainland Greece with no one to look after them and there was no shortage of recruits to replace the losses.

During the winter the Regiment had remained at Corinth making occasional foraging expeditions to find food from the surrounding villages. The officers, still for the most part the original Italian refugees, cursed the Greeks but continued to drill their men. Some of them had a few Turkish women and girls in their ménages whom they had saved by their own efforts from the various massacres or had bought in the sales of slaves for a few piastres.

This was the Greek Army about which they had read so much. But if it was not what they had been led to expect, at least it was a force recognizably on the European model being trained to fight according to European tactics. According to Hypsilantes and Mavrocordato, if the volunteers would only have patience, new regiments would be formed, and not only new regiments like the Regiment Tarella but artillery, cavalry, engineers, general staffs, and all the panopoly of a national disciplined force. And so the European volunteers began to congregate at Corinth. Some tired of waiting and went off on sight-seeing excursions but they were soon drawn back to Corinth. By April 1822 there were about one hundred and fifty European volunteers in Corinth all expecting commissions in the prospective Greek Army.[17]

As the warm weather returned, life in this European colony was deceptively pleasant. Many were to look back on this period as the happiest they were to spend in Greece. Cafes were set up, wine was cheap, and the volunteers soon reverted to the carefree, confident, aimless type of life that they had enjoyed at Marseilles. Large sums changed hands at the gambling tables and there was perpetual quarrelling and duelling. Some of the more enterprising dug among the ancient ruins to find coins and there was always the hope that they might discover the fabled treasure which the Turks were thought to have buried before the fall of the fortress.

The Greek Government still asserted its intention of organizing an army of 30,000 regulars, but as the weeks passed and nothing happened the volunteers became increasingly impatient. The arrival of General Normann and Mavrocordato raised everyone’s hopes that something was going to be done but still nothing happened. A formal letter of protest was drawn up and signed by sixty European officers but they were put off with promises. The Greeks produced pictures of the proposed uniforms for the various arms of the proposed army, but this ruse deceived nobody. Nor did an attempt to gain time by organizing a military choir meet with any success.

At Corinth the charlatans came into their own, gulling the simple volunteers and milking them of their money. Some now tried to translate into action the fantasies that had brought them to Greece. A tall thin bespectacled man with a huge cavalry sword became a favourite of Hypsilantes for a time. He called himself Baron Friedel von Friedelsburg and was forever talking about his castle at Friedelsburg in Denmark and his great connections in Europe.[18] It was not long before a genuine Danish count[19] arrived and exposed him. But although Friedel was not what he claimed and there was no such place as Friedelsburg, he was a man of talent. He had been a student, an actor, a musician, and an artist, and he now carried a lithographic press on his back. Like Paul Harro-Harring, another artist and poet who went to Greece, he seems genuinely to have had difficulty in keeping imagination separate from reality. He was to be found wandering over Greece through much of the war, good-humouredly attempting one unconvincing deception after another. Later he was to produce a magnificent series of portraits of the famous Greeks of the War of Independence.

More sinister was a Frenchman called Mari,[20] who had come with one of the expeditions from Marseilles. He claimed to have been an officer in Napoleon’s guard but actually had been a drum major. At Corinth he lived with a Turkish woman with whom – to the suspicion of his comrades – he was heard to talk in Turkish. Like several of the volunteers active in Greece in 1821 and 1822 he had served in the army of Ali Pasha. Mari always seemed to have plenty of money and he occasionally took one or other of the volunteers aside and whispered confidentially that he knew Turkish officers in Salonika who would guarantee them a good job. Mari made three or four recruits and they all mysteriously disappeared. Later he was to fight against the Greeks as a battalion commander in the Egyptian army under the name of Bekir Aga.

By May the Greek Government – of whom Mavrocordato was now the nominal head – had largely given up its efforts to win the active co-operation of Colocotrones and the other captains. It was obvious that the armed bands of Greeks were not to be disciplined into a European army. A year after the outbreak of the Revolution the only forces who were prepared to take orders from the Government were the Regiment Tarella and the European volunteers. The day when all the volunteers could be given commands in the ranks which they expected was clearly a long way off. It was therefore suggested that the Europeans should form themselves into a regular unit of their own and await the day when the Greek army would be organized. Since there was no real alternative the great majority of the Europeans accepted the plan.

A commission of three Europeans, a Frenchman, a German, and an Italian, was appointed to look into the claims of the volunteers and grade them by rank. Since many of the volunteers had not told the whole truth about themselves, it was an invidious task. Many who had served in the famous regiments of Europe could not produce papers, others were exposed as impostors and their swords ceremonially broken. The charming but unconvincing Baron Friedel von Friedelsburg burst into tears when his pretensions were exploded and went off to try his skill at impersonation elsewhere in Greece. A party of German officers refused the indignity of serving as private soldiers and left for home. Inevitably there were accusations that the commission was being unfair – favouring the French – or the Germans – or undervaluing the experience of some battle-scarred officer.[21]

Alexander Mavrocordatos / Benaki Museum, Athens

Eventually, about the middle of May, after a good deal of wrangling the volunteers were organized into a battalion of two companies of about fifty men each, the first company consisting mainly of French and Italians, the second of Germans. A few Greeks from Europeanized families were given commissions. The French system of ranks and commands was adopted. It was agreed that everyone would serve in lower ranks than they were entitled to. Officers of the higher ranks in their own armies were to be subalterns, middle-ranking officers were to be sergeants and corporals, lieutenants and others of no military experience were to be private soldiers. Similarly, within each group, rank was to be determined by the date on which a man arrived in Greece. All swore to serve for six months and were promised commands as officers as soon as the regular army was formed. There was to be a high rate of pay, but only a third was to be paid in cash, the rest in Government I.O.U.s to be honoured later. The first third of the pay was actually paid from the money which Mavrocordato and Normann had brought from Europe.

Mavrocordato himself, although he had no military experience, insisted on taking formal command with Normann as his chief of staff. The first company was commanded by the Piedmontese Dania, who had led the unsuccessful attack on Nauplia in December 1821; the second company was commanded by the Swiss Chevalier, who had taken part in the famous duel with Lasky at Marseilles. An artillery unit was organized to service two small field guns, and all the elements of a regular staff and supporting organization were set up, with paymasters, standard bearers, and medical teams. No permanent commander for the battalion was appointed but Dania was declared commander ad interim. He had such a strong impetuous nature and was so adept at attracting publicity to himself that he soon became the dominating figure.

There was a long debate about what the new battalion was to be called. Some wanted to call it the Sacred Battalion, the name adopted by the shortlived unit of foreign officers which had taken part in the attack on Nauplia. In the end it was decided to call it the Battalion of Philhellenes, a word which was already becoming general in all European languages to describe the volunteers who went to Greece.

On 24 May the Philhellenes were presented with their standard and reviewed by the ministers of the Greek Government. It was a proud moment. The disappointments, the broken promises, the atrocities, the national enmities and rivalries were all momentarily forgotten. The old idealism and enthusiasm surged again through their hearts. Here in the sunshine at Corinth, beside the stark pillars of the ruined Temple of Apollo, among the bishops, the captains, and the representatives of every part of Greece, it was again possible to believe in the cause of Hellas. As one Frenchman who was present remarked,[22] here was drawn up in the respective uniforms of their nations, men from the banks of the Seine and the Tagus, the Vistula and the Tiber, the Danube and the Po, even the Nile and the Dneiper, men from the Propontis and the Bosphorus side by side with men from the Baltic and the Zuyderzee, the conquerors and the conquered of Austerlitz, men who had come from all points of the compass to help an oppressed nation break its chains.


1 This incident, which happened when the St. Jean Battiste arrived, is described by Gottfried Müller and Kotsch.

2 See, for example, Byern, p. 58.

3 Lieber’s narrative breaks into Latin at this point (p. 73) to spare the blushes of his female readers who were presumed not to have the education to understand it.

4 See, for example, Stabell, p. 21.

5 Gottfried Müller, p. 158.

6 Georg Grauer, a lieutenant from Württemberg, who came in the St. Marie.

7 Karl von Descheffy, killed at Peta.

8 An unidentified Alsatian.

9 Both Moring and Mulhens are recorded as duelling with d’André who claimed to be a marquis.

10 Stabell, pp. 40 ff.

11 Striebeck, p. 95.

12 Stabell, p. 50; Striebeck, p. 100.

13 Gustav Reichard from Vienna. Other accounts say from Frankfurt.

14 Hans von Jargo, a lieutenant from Berlin.

15 Anemat.

16 Hastings Diary, 6 July 1822. Hastings Papers.

17 The number is variously estimated. Striebeck, p. 154, gives two hundred and twenty. Stauffer, p. 53, gives as many as three hundred.

18 See especially Byern, p. 144. Friedel eventually established himself as an engraver in London and married the sister of Hodges, one of the artificers at Missolonghi with Lord Byron.

19 Waldemar von Qualen, killed in Thessaly in 1822.

20 See especially Byern, p. 135.

21 For the establishment of the Battalion see especially Striebeck, p. 208, Kiesewetter, p. 16, Schrebian, p. 112, Byern, p. 99, and Raybaud, ii, p. 238.

22 Raybaud, ii, 242.

From That Greece Might Still Be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence, by William St. Clair