Traveling along the Kalamaki – Phaleron stretch of the coastal highway in suburban Athens is a bit of a mixed bag. The traffic at this part is frenetic, but the endless vista of the glistening Aegean sea all along this road is glorious. The beachside is peppered with cafés and bars and since 2004, there has been the addition of the state-of-the-art tram connecting the coast effectively with the city.
Phaleron was once famous for its magnificent stone built villas; these mostly have long since gone, giving way to high rise blocks of flats, jostling all the way, it seems, for every centimetre of land. That is apart for one exception.
On the borders of the boroughs of Phaleron and Kalamaki lies the Athens Memorial, Phaleron Commonwealth War Grave. It is a haven of immaculate, startlingly, green lawn, and the uniform rows of simple white headstones that we are familiar with from the war cemeteries in Northern France. Its position here though, set as it is in this residential area, puts it right at the heart of ordinary life. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people drive past it every day – it is a local landmark, the kind that is useful when giving directions… “opposite”, ‘before” or “after” the “English Cemetery”, as it is known locally. Last Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, as we were so close by, it seemed appropriate to make a more purposeful visit.
Uncertain of quite what to expect, we found a brass band from the Greek military tuning up their instruments and a guard of honour, also from the Greek Army, all in full dress uniform, adjusting their ceremonial swords. Little girls from the 1st Pack Athens Brownies were selling poppies and the dignitaries had started to arrive; ambassadors from all across the Commonwealth and Europe – including Germany.
The Service of Remembrance, and the laying of wreaths was solemn and dignified. The lone trumpeter standing up on the hill, in front of the huge white cross, playing the Last Post is something I will never forget. It felt right to have come and pay our respects, in this small way, to so many young men who had found their final resting place, far, far from home.
And they were all such a long way from home – not only the British soldiers, sailors and airmen, but those from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India too. Those that died defending Greece in 1941 and then those lost in the winter of 1944-45, in the more complicated and bitter struggle that eventually became the Greek Civil War.
Before going to the ceremony, I had looked on the CWGC website to see if there were any servicemen from Sheffield, my hometown, buried here. Some six names came up on my search – one stood out. The citation to John Douglas Harding, age 27, gave the added information that he was from Nether Edge, my neighbourhood. Some research on line revealed a little more and gave some of the real person to the name.
John Harding was born, it seems in 1915 some months before his parents, Thomas and Hannah, were eventually married in 1916. They had grown up next door to each other in the village of West Lutton, North Yorkshire. There had been Sheffield connections in the family and soon they moved there, Thomas, once a blacksmith, setting up in business as a ‘taxi proprietor’. John soon had two brothers, Thomas, in 1917, and Ronald in 1919. I imagine John and his brothers most likely joining their Dad in the taxi business – seems probable.
In 1939, in the first days of the Second World War, they are living at 74 Onslow Road, a few steps from Endcliffe Park and a brisk walk down to Hunter’s Bar. In the late summer of that year,with war on the horizon, John marries Isabella Glossop and maybe this is when the newly weds move to Nether Edge.
By Saturday April 26th 1941, about eighteen months later, John is dead in the blitzkrieg invasion of Greece. German troops take Athens the next day. One can only imagine the devastation his family, back at home in Sheffield, would have felt. But this family’s part in world history had not finished. John’s youngest brother Ronald was killed by a mine in northern France in September 1944, during the arduous push through Europe after D Day. Ron is buried in France.
There are more details, that are not hard to find. Hannah dies in 1946, no doubt broken from losing two of her sons. Thomas follows them as an old man in 1966. Isabella eventually remarried, but not until 1965.
This is not a post that adheres to my usual strap line, and there are no food references here, but I thought it was a story worth telling – and I am so glad to have spent some time with John Douglas Harding, who never went home to Sheffield.