The burial ceremony of 32 Greek soldiers who fell in Albania during the Greek-Italian war of 1940-41 was held earlier in the week at Aghios Nikolaos Church at the military cemetery of Klisoura.
The ceremony was held as part of an international agreement between Greece and Albania to find, exhume, identify and bury the bodies of Greek soldiers who fell in Albania and was arranged and organized by the Joint Greek-Albanian Experts Committee.
The agreement was signed in 2009, but it’s implementation started a decade later. It calls for the location, identification and exhumation of the fallen Greek soldiers’ remains and their reburial in the two cemeteries agreed upon.
The issue was first raised by Greece in the early 1980s when the remains of 6,300 Italian soldiers were exhumed and returned to Italy. Using old Italian military maps that recorded the makeshift cemeteries where both Italians and Greeks fallen in battle were buried, some 6,000 fallen soldiers were found scattered in the mountains of southern Albania.
A total of 1,003 fallen Greeks have been already buried at the cemeteries of Klisoura and Vouliarates, while the military general hospitals 401 and 251, as well as the Hellenic Police and the Deomokritos National Center for Scientific Research are contributing to the acceleration of the identification process through the use of DNA analysis.
Up to 8,000 Greek soldiers buried in makeshift graves
According to an Athens Macedonia News Agency report, an estimated 6,800 to 8,000 Greek soldiers are believed to be buried in makeshift graves throughout Albania, killed in the pitched battles between Greek and Italian forces.
Many Greek-Albanians even suffered persecution at the hands of the former communist regime for concealing the location of buried Greek soldiers from the authorities.
Among them was the father of Ermioni Brigou of Himare, who has been tending the graves of six Greek soldiers buried in the garden of her family home for the more than 78 years.
The six soldiers, who fell in the battle of Himare, were buried in two makeshift graves in the family’s yard by her father, who was punished by the Communist regime with a 1.5-year relocation for refusing to reveal where they were. She also kept their presence a tightly guarded secret until the regime fell.
These six soldiers have already been identified and will not be transferred from her yard, as this is neither what Ermione wants nor is there any reason to disturb their eternal rest.
Archives of the Army History Directorate show that from the beginning of the war until April 28, 1941 – when the Greek army surrendered to the Germans who had invaded from the north – the casualties on the Albanian front amounted to 13,936 officers and soldiers.
Of the total of the dead in the operations against the Italians, the bodies of up to 8,000 of them remained in Albania, while 5,960 were buried in cemeteries within Greek territory.
First days of the war in Albania: October 28 – November 13, 1940
From October 28 until November 13, all Greek armed forces were gathered along the Albanian Front and preparations for large-scale offensive operations were completed.
Eleven infantry divisions, one infantry brigade, one cavalry division and one cavalry brigade with a total force of 232,000 men, with 556 cannons and 100,000 horses, were already in place. Italian forces in Albania were reinforced by new arrivals from Italy in early November, with 250,000 men.
The Greek losses so far had amounted to 548 dead officers and soldiers. At that time the dead were buried within Greek territory in organized cemeteries.
Second period of the war, November 14 to December 7, 1940
On November 14th, the Greek counter-attack began within Albanian territory and the Italians started to retreat.
By November 22, the Greek Army started taking over several Albanian towns and regions. By December 6, Greek troops advanced, further occupying more Albanian territories and the Italian army retreated further.
However, the heavy winter became the unexpected ally of the Italian Army. The harsh cold, the snowstorms, the slippery terrain, the torrential rains, the mud, the rough roads and the lack of adequate food supplies became the most serious opponents of the Greeks.
The Greek losses during that period amounted to 1,558 dead officers and soldiers. All the dead from that period were buried on Greek soil.
Third period, December 8, 1940 to April 28, 1941
The Greek counterattack in Albanian territory subsided due to the harsh terrain and the severe winter, bringing significant losses to both sides. The battles were reduced to trench fighting and skirmishes.
Harsh weather, heavy snowfall and transportation difficulties due to the heavy animal losses greatly increased the incidence of illness within the ranks. The death toll for the Greeks — mainly due to frostbite, and secondarily to battle — reached 7,796 officers and soldiers.
Several of the dead were covered by the snow where they were killed, and in many cases, their bodies were uncovered more than 60 days later when the snow began to melt.
From March 9 and onward, the Greek forces were trapped on the bloodstained Hill 731, and resisted the Italian counter-attack heroically. The Italian forces, strengthened by new arrivals, pounded the Greeks.
By April 28, Greek casualties amounted to 4,038 dead officers and soldiers. Many of the dead were abandoned after the collapse of the Greek army, but a few were buried in makeshift graves by their fellow warriors.