Thursday, 5 July 2012

113. Great Britain and Greece.

  With Greece so much in the news at present, this seems a good time to recall Greece's historic philatelic connections with Great Britain. The Ionian Islands had historically been a dependency of The Venetian Republic until they were seized by the forces of the French tyrant, Bonaparte, in 1797. The Royal Navy  liberated Cephalonia, Santa Maura, Ithace, Cytherea and Zante in 1809, Paxo in 1813 and Corfu in 1814.  By the 1815 Treaty of Paris, Britain was formally given control of the islands  and gave the islands a degree of autonomy but support for union with Greece grew in the islands and they were ceded to Greece on 2 June 1864. Prior to this, stamps were produced for The Ionian Islands and released on 15 June 1859.                


Flag of The Ionian Islands 1815 - 1865
As illustrated above, three values were produced although the stamps were actually undenominated:- 5 obols or one halfpenny (orange stamp),  10 obols or 1 penny (blue) and 20 obols or 2d (carmine). The denominations were omitted to avoid offending the Greek population or the British authorities. The stamps depicted a portrait of Queen Victoria with the surrounding inscription IONIKON KRATOS (Ionian Government) and were engraved by C. Jeens and printed in intaglio by Perkins Bacon. They were withdrawn from sale when the islands were handed over to Greece. The next British philatelic connection to Greece resulted from events on the island of Crete.

The Turks had seized Crete from The Venetian Republic in 1715 but there was a series of rebellions by the local population which eventually led to a civil war from 1897 to 1898. The Turks called for intervention by the Great Powers and Britain, along with France, Russia and Italy, occupied and divided up the island, the British stationing their troops in the area of Heraklion (Candia). A British post office operated there from 1898 to the end of 1899. The British post office issued a stamp on 25 November 1898 (shown above) which was imperforate and had been handstruck locally. The inscription read "Provisional Posts Heraklion" in Greek and was of the value 20 parades. On 3 December 1898, 2 perforated stamps which had been printed by M. Grundmann of Athens, were issued in the values of 10 and 20 parades and they were reissued in new colours in 1899.

Flag of Crete 1898 - 1908

Turkey granted a new constitution to Crete in 1899 whereby Crete became a de facto independent state although it remained under Turkish suzerainty until the summer of 1909 when the Cretans unilaterally declared their union with Greece although formal cession did not occur until 1913. The last troops of the Great Powers left the island in July 1909 but the British post office had ceased operation in 1899. The next British-Greek philatelic connection is the most extraordinary of all and occurred during the First World War. Mount Athos which had been sacred to the Orthodox Church for a thousand years and contained a large cluster of important monastries, had long been coveted by Russia which had opened a post office there at the beginning of the 20th century. Greece occupied the area in 1913 after the Second Balkan War and established a theocracy there in the form of the monastic republic of Athos which had self-government under the guidance of the Greek government. During the First World War, the area became strategically significant because of The Dardenelles Campaign. On 3 October 1915, after a secret agreement with the Greek government, the British and their allies began to land troops at, and occupy, the port of Salonica (Thessaloniki). When established there, the British feared that Athos was harbouring German agents. An investigation by 2 Royal Navy officers, Lt. Commanders Luke and Pirie-Gordon, made contact with Mount Athos and greatly impressed the Abbot of Iviron by firing a one-gun salute in his honour. No real evidence of German infiltration was obtained but the Allies considered an occupation of the territory although the Russians eventually vetoed the action. Before that, detailed planning for an occupation was undertaken in December 1915 and January 1916 with Pirie-Gordon to be appointed resident there. Included in Pirie-Gordon's planning was the organisation of postal services and he wished the governing council of Mount Athos to issue its own stamps. He had sheets of stamps printed on board HMS Ark Royal by a photographic method, the designs featuring a Byzantine two-headed eagle with an inset medallion of the Madonna and Child with the inscription "Mount Athos Theocracy" in English, Russian and Greek. The stamps were printed in black on variously coloured papers and in 3 different sizes. Because the occupation never took place, only a few sheets of the stamps survived.

Pirie-Gordon also intended to open a British postal agency at Athos to counter the activities of the Russian post office there and to this end he purchased £119 5s worth of British stamps from the field post office in Salonica, using £80 17s worth of the halfpenny, 1d, 2d, 3d, 4d, 6d, 9d and 1s values and had them overprinted "LEVANT" at the Army Printing Office. Apparently, Pirie-Gordon operated the press himself.

Because of the Russian intervention the stamps were never used at Athos but it is said that they were placed on sale between the end of February and 9 March 1916 at the Army Field Post Office in Salonica. However The International Encyclopaedia Of Stamps states that the stamps were never sold there but used on covers by Pirie-Gordon and his friends for philatelic purposes. The covers passed through the post with the Salonica field post handstamps dated between 2 and 9 March 1916. They were only produced in small numbers so that there are only 360 each of the 9d and 1 shilling values, 480 of the 2d and 4d and 620 of the 3d value.

During April 1916, Fred J. Melville discovered the existence of the stamps and wrote an article about them in the Daily Telegraph on 20 April 1916 which was read by King George V who was eager to obtain a set for his own collection and dispatched a telegram to the commander of the forces in Salonica, General Sir Brian Mahon, in which he asked him to obtain blocks of 4 of each stamp for him. The general knew nothing about the stamp issue and ordered an investigation which ended with Pirie-Gordon facing a naval court of enquiry on 19 May 1916 and the court concluded that Pirie-Gordon's actions had been irregular but well-meant. The court judged that the stamps in question were unauthorised and the Post Office had never recognised such stamps as valid for the prepayment of postage. In fact, Harry Pirie-Gordon had by then had produced further stamps, this time for Long Island which was located in the Gulf of Smyrna, in the form of surcharges on Turkish fiscal stamps, which were issued in May 1916 when, as administrator of the island, he had opened 2 post offices there. A further supply of stamps was provided by the simple use of a typewriter to produce them. The General Post office ordered their withdrawal in August of that year.

Pirie-Gordon went on to work with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force during the rest of the war and served with distinction in Palestine. He has certainly left a philatelic heritage of interesting items to enter into the margins of a collection of British imperial and Commonwealth stamps.

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