Wonderful treasures attesting to the modern history of Thessaloniki were found among the refuse of an old World War I military hospital used by the Army of the Orient, which served on the Balkan front, items that had remained buried for almost 100 years on the outskirts of Thermi.
The hospital’s garbage dump, which had become overgrown with weeds, was rediscovered in 2007 and excavations have since yielded a wealth of material that offers a new reading of the history of that period in the northern port city.
Dozens of empty champagne and Burgundy wine bottles, eating utensils, cookware, military uniforms, buttons, shoes and coins, among many other finds, began to paint a picture in the minds of the archaeologists and historians researching the finds of the everyday stories of the men in the multiethnic army that served in Macedonia during WWI.
All of these treasures are now on display in Thessaloniki in an exhibition titled “Army of the Orient in the Balkans: Archaeological Testimonials of a Hospital in Thermi/Sedes,” which runs to March 3 at the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
“My first impression was that the finds were from an officers’ club and showed how they entertained themselves,” Anastasios Antonaras, one of the archaeologists who worked on the exhibit, told Kathimerini. “It took two years of research before I discovered how close pleasure is to pain and joy to sadness, as the bottles found in the dump were reused to store medicine, covering the very sizable needs of the 16 military hospitals that had been set up in Thessaloniki at the time.”
The seemingly useless junk from the French military hospital tells fascinating stories, such as how a soldier may have been saved by a 10-drachma piece, which was found with a bullet hole in its center. The collection of buttons is also very interesting, as they come from the uniforms of French, Russian, Serbian and British soldiers, showing that exchanges between armies, hospitals and camps were constant.
“This is the first time such material has been used to illustrate what life was like during the war on the Macedonian front,” said Antonaras, who co-curated the exhibition with Ioannis Motsianos under the supervision of Agathoniki Tsilipakou, director of the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
The remnants of the military hospital of the Army of the Orient, which fought in Thermi on the outskirts of Thessaloniki in the 1914-18 period, not only shows what life was like for the soldiers and medics on the front, but also the evolution of the science of medicine as well as life outside the trenches.
The Army of the Orient played a pivotal role in rebuilding Thessaloniki, improving the rail network and building schools. The army was 300,000 strong and tripled the population of the city, which had just 120,000 residents at the time. The soldiers came from France, Britain, India, Senegal, Australia and New Zealand, forming a multicultural mosaic that brought new life and economic activity to the quiet port city, as new restaurant, tavernas, hotels, cafes, music stages and, of course, brothels opened for the entertainment of the soldiers.
The displays at the exhibition are augmented by material from the archives and collections of the Mediatheque de l’Architecture et de Patrimoine – Diffusion RMN of the French Ministry of Culture, the Thessaloniki History Center, the municipality and several private collectors.
Museum of Byzantine Culture, 2 Stratou, tel 2313.306.400. Opening hours are Mondays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesdays to Sundays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.