A tiny, beautiful island you may never have heard of played a key role in Australian history, and locals are baffled more of us aren't visiting, writes John Burfitt.

"I just don't understand you lot," my Greek guide comments, with a genuinely puzzled look on his face.

"Thousands of Australians and Kiwis travel to Turkey to see Gallipoli every year, but so few of you know the role Lemnos Island played in that campaign for the Anzacs. We were the ones actually taking care of you, not trying to kill you, and yet we're forgotten!"

His words stayed in my mind throughout the days of this visit to the beautiful but haunting Lemnos Island — one of the closest Greek Islands to the Turkish coast — which played a pivotal role in the Anzac landings at Gallipoli.


On March 4, 1915, about 3200 Australian soldiers landed on Lemnos. By April 21, about 200 ships had gathered at Mudros Harbour, the main port, and then left the island on the evening of April 24 for the dawn Gallipoli landings.

Lemnos was the place where the troops practised the landings, where the Anzacs disembarked for Gallipoli, where Anzac nurses and medical staff established their hospitals, and where the sick and injured returned for treatment and other soldiers returned for periods of rest after the horrors of battle.

Returning to Gallipoli: the New Zealand infantry and mounted rifles were stationed in Lemnos in 1915 for a period of rest. Photo/IWM
Returning to Gallipoli: the New Zealand infantry and mounted rifles were stationed in Lemnos in 1915 for a period of rest. Photo/IWM

It's also believed that Simpson's donkey, which carried the wounded from the Gallipoli battlefront back to the medical services, came from Lemnos.

During the nine-month campaign, more than 50,000 Anzacs passed through Lemnos. It's also where 148 Australians and 76 New Zealanders are buried in the two military cemeteries on opposite ends of the island, at East Mudros and at Portianou.

You don't need to look too hard to see the pride the Lemnians have in their Anzac heritage — there's an Anzac Trail along Anzac Street, an Anzac Pier, an Anzac display at the History and Maritime Tradition of Mudros Museum, and numerous commemorative stones across the island. This year for Anzac Day, a new plaque will be unveiled at Anzac Pier, which was built by the Diggers during their stay.

"So why is it so few of you even know about us?" my guide asked. "We're so proud to have that connection between Greece and Anzac countries, but it seems to have been overlooked."

I had to be honest — I'd never heard of Lemnos Island until two years ago when watching the miniseries Anzac Girls. A few episodes told of the nurses stationed on the island and how they waved off the troops on the way to battle at Gallipoli, and then cared for the injured who were brought back.

Lemnos' role in history has been overshadowed by the carnage that happened at Gallipoli. With the eventual decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign, troops were evacuated, and by early 1916 the last troops departed Lemnos, with most then sent to northern France.

Limnos remembers the links to WWI, stood on the side of Anzac St. Lemnos. Photo / John Burfitt
Limnos remembers the links to WWI, stood on the side of Anzac St. Lemnos. Photo / John Burfitt

On October 30, 1918, Lemnos was again on the frontline of history when it was the location for the signing of the armistice between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies. Later this year, the centenary of the end of WWI will be commemorated in Lemnos.

A trip around the island with my guide brings the history to life, as I am taken to places like the Mudros Harbour Pier, the old Anzac Cafe in Portianou and open fields along the waterfront. Pictures of the Anzac troops in the same locations 100 years ago are presented to juxtapose the past and present. It does a bold job of vividly bringing history to life at each spot.

"The Lemnians treated the Anzacs like friends and allies, offering them a relaxing time and a safe place from the horrors that were going on only 50km away," my guide continued. "That's a relationship we've never forgotten."

For all the magnificence of its history and its role in a defining era of Australian and New Zealand's history, the island itself — an easy 45-minute flight from Athens — is one of the most stunning locations in the eastern chain of the Greek Islands. This may not be on the party map like Mykonos or Santorini, but it lacks nothing when it comes to island beauty, with the added bonus of a wealth of intriguing history.

Lemnos is the eighth-largest of the Greek islands and offers the iconic sights of whitewashed buildings with blue and terracotta roofs on the edge of the sea, along with rows of small fishing boats tied up at the dockside. What it does not have, however, is the heaving crowds of the other island hot spots.

That's a blessing when exploring the beaches of crystal-clear waters and soft sands that encircle the island and offer superb places for dips in the heat of summer. Thanos and Plati beaches on the western side are among the most popular.

Gallipoli to Ypres: the First World War changed these sites forever, in stunning photos by Michael St. Maur Sheil

The town of Myrina is where you'll find the action, with a colourful range of shops, bars, clubs and restaurants around its waterfront. History is never too far away, however, as the ruins of the Byzantine medieval castle of Myrina, dating from the 11th century, towers overhead at the town's highest point.

But for all its gentle beauty, no matter where you go on Lemnos it's the history that demands attention. Even though Gallipoli is only 50km away, the logistics of Aussie visitors to the Turkish battlefields also island hopping over to Lemnos is not as direct as hoped, with no direct flights or ferry cruises between the two destinations.

Instead, Lemnos is best accessed by direct flights from Athens or by ferry from the mainland Greek town of Kavala. Either way, it's worth the effort — not just for history and the splendour of the island life, but also for the reminder of the tales that bind us closely with places around the world.

The writer travelled to Lemnos courtesy of Scoot Airlines and The Lemnian Association of NSW.