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That Greece Might Still Be Free

William St Clair

12 The German Legion

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  • 1 Lieber, p. 157. In the United States he became a distinguished political philosopher and universit (...)

1One of the disillusioned German Philhellenes on his way to a new career as an exile in the United States1 records that on two occasions in the Peloponnese he was told a curious story. It was being said that two regiments of Swiss troops were on the way to help Greece, and that when they had finally expelled the Turks, the Swiss were to be given the best lands. The Philhellene noted the story merely as an example of the dozens of ridiculous rumours circulating when he was in Greece. In fact, however, there was more truth in this story than in most of the others. From various accounts it is possible to piece together what lay behind it.

2While Mavrocordato had been enjoying his short period of ascendancy before his disastrous expedition to Epirus, he had personally given his approval to a scheme to bring an army of 6,000 German and Swiss volunteers to Greece. Almost alone of the principal Greeks, he understood the deeper implications of the political situation. He realized that without a regular army loyal to the central government his view of the aims of the Revolution would never prevail against the captains and their armed bands. If he could not raise a Greek army then he was ready to rely on foreign volunteers. He therefore authorized the scheme without telling the other members of the Government.

3The scheme was put to him by a Greek called Kephalas and a Prussian called von Dittmar. These two men, although they were on bad terms, had decided to unite their fortunes in the belief that they would be more successful as a team than as two individuals. Their strategy was to exploit the mutual ignorance of Greeks and Germans.

4In Greece Kephalas was a man of little importance, one of the many ambitious Greeks who had returned from Western Europe at the outbreak of the Revolution with exaggerated ideas about the reception that was his due. But he was accompanied by the famous Prussian cavalry officer, von Dittmar, who had won a high military reputation in the wars against the French and had subsequently proved his devotion to the freedom of oppressed peoples by taking part in the Piedmontese Revolution. Clearly he was an influential figure to recruit to the Greek cause and Kephalas basked in the reflected glory. The two adventurers explained to Mavrocordato that a rich Dutchman had made a huge donation to the Greek cause. With this money and the money at the disposal of the Greek Societies in South Germany and Switzerland, they claimed that a regular European force could be recruited in Württemberg and Switzerland and brought to Greece. This, they argued, would be far more effective than the expeditions of individual Philhellenes who were arriving in great numbers from Marseilles.

5So at the very time when Mavrocordato’s ambitions were being extinguished on the hills of Peta, Kephalas and Dittmar arrived back in Europe and put their scheme to the Darmstadt Greek Committee.

6In Germany the picture looked very different. Von Dittmar (if he really was entitled to call himself von) was not to be taken seriously. He was simply another unemployed officer, one of the thousands who had not yet reconciled themselves to the changed conditions of Europe at peace and were hoping to resume their military careers by offering their services abroad. In Germany it was Kephalas who came into his own. He assumed the picturesque title of Baron Kephalas of Olympus, said he was a Senator of Greece, and the Victor of Tripolitsa (at whose destruction he had not even been present). A runaway German apprentice had found little difficulty in convincing the Darmstadt Greek Society that he was Prince Alepso of Argos: how much easier was it for Kephalas to carry off his assumed role by flattering the Society and repeating the myths about Modern Greece which they so passionately wanted to believe. Kephalas seemed to the professors, churchmen, lawyers, merchants, and schoolmasters of the Societies to be exactly the kind of Greek for whose sake philhellenism existed. He spoke good German, had a German wife, and had served for a time in the Coburg militia; now he was one of the leaders of his regenerated country. For Dittmar, who had acquiesced in his own transfiguration in Greece, the pretensions of Kephalas were too much and he tried to warn the Societies against his partner. But the Societies had no ears for the complaints of a discontented officer, preferring to put their faith in a real Greek.

7In September 1822 the Societies decided to make their biggest effort to date and to send a fully-equipped expedition of volunteers to Greece under Kephalas’ command. Disillusioned Philhellenes had already returned from Greece protesting violently against the scheme, but Kephalas assured the Societies that they need not listen to them since they were merely disappointed adventurers who had been expelled from Greece for incompetence or worse. Under his command and with his influence with the Greek Government, everything would be different. The Societies soon convinced themselves that he was right. The trouble with the earlier expeditions, they reasoned, had been that they had not been properly organized or equipped; there had been no regular contract and command system, no acknowledged leader, no official connection with the Greek Government. With a Greek Senator in command, the whole situation would be different; was it not universally agreed by even the most disgruntled of the returning volunteers that a small European regular force would make short shrift of the Turks given the minimum of support from the Greeks?

  • 2 A copy of Kephalas’ proclamation is reproduced in Statuts dela Societad d’ajüt per ils Grecs in En (...)

8The Societies therefore turned their attention to ensuring that this expedition would be properly organized, unlike the eight that had already sailed. Considering that they were entirely dependent on public subscriptions for their funds and that the governments were unsympathetic to their activities, they were remarkably successful. Recruiting was opened in the states of south-west Germany and in Switzerland – the only areas where the Governments still tolerated their activities. Maps of Greece were lithographed and circulated to show the places where the volunteer army was to be asked to operate. The credentials of all candidates were scrutinized. A proclamation was drafted and issued in three languages under the auspices of the Societies. It was even translated into Romansh for the benefit of the citizens of the Engadine.2

9It was decided that the new corps of Philhellenes should be called the German Legion. It was to set sail for Greece in separate contingents at monthly intervals as soon as the preparations could be made. Unlike the earlier expeditions, the organization and equipping was to be the responsibility of the Societies and they would ensure that a proper contract was made with the Greek Government to ensure that the force was properly employed and maintained.

10The response to the appeal was excellent. Within a few weeks about a hundred and twenty volunteers had come forward and it was decided to send them to Greece as the first contingent. By November 1822 all preparations were complete and the expedition made its way to Marseilles to embark on the Brig Scipio chartered by the Societies. It was by far the best equipped expedition that had left Europe to date, and was divided into four companies representing infantry, artillery, sharpshooters, and chasseurs. ’Baron’ Kephalas was to be the commander, and officers and non-commissioned officers were appointed for each of the four companies. Dittmar accompanied the expedition but was not given any official position.

11Every man was asked to swear to abide by the French military code, and to promise obedience to Kephalas and to the Greek Government. He also had to promise not to leave the Legion or join another unit or to dispose of his weapons. Each man was issued with a uniform and another was promised. A large consignment of arms and ammunition was put on board, enough to equip not only the Legion but the regiments of Greeks who were expected to be entrusted to the Legion for training. The ship was also freighted with everything that the Societies thought necessary for the success of the expedition – food, money, medical supplies, and tools and materials to establish a workshop. There was even a consignment of ninety-two musical instruments for military bands.

12The men who formed the expedition were almost all German and Swiss. They came from all sections of society and, in this respect, they were much more like a normal European military unit than the earlier expeditions, since the individuals who had gone to Greece in the first eight expeditions were mainly officers and men from the more educated classes. The Legion, on the other hand, although it had officers and students as well, was mainly composed of men of the lower orders of society. The earlier Philhellenes, ever conscious of the purity of their philhellenism and of their ’Honour’, tended to disparage the men of the Legion as being more akin to mercenaries.

  • 3 The anonymous author of the Tagebuch published at Dinkelsbühl in 1823.

13In December 1822 the leader of the Darmstadt Society went personally to Marseilles to take leave of his little army. In a tearful ceremony on board, in which he said that he wished he was going with them, he explained the terms of their service. As soon as they arrived in Greece a contract was to be signed with the Greek Government who would thereupon be responsible for their supplies and for their command. ’Baron’ Kephalas had given assurances on behalf of the Greek Government that there would be no difficulty with the contract, but in case of difficulty, the expedition was supplied with enough money to come back if necessary. Other expeditions would follow at monthly intervals. In the middle of November the expedition set sail. A Philhellene, recently returned from Greece and now in quarantine in Marseilles, looked on helplessly, unable to persuade anyone to listen to his warnings.3

14The Brig Scipio was far too small a vessel to accommodate a hundred and twenty men in any comfort. It was old, dirty, and unseaworthy. There was no room to stand up and the men had to sleep three to a mattress. Sea sickness added to the discomfort. Already there were murmurings against Kephalas, and the Legionaries for the first time had a chance to hear Dittmar’s version of events, but order was maintained. A theology student, at Kephalas’ suggestion, gave regular sermons on the Christian duty of the great crusade on which they were engaged.

15At the beginning of December the Scipio reached Hydra. Much to the amusement of his men Kephalas donned a huge silver cloak with epaulettes and spurs and went ashore with a few officers to confer with the Hydriotes. None of the Germans could, of course, understand what was being said but it soon became obvious that something was amiss. Kephalas came back and announced that the Legion was not to be allowed ashore.

  • 4 Amand Gysin.

16Days passed and still Kephalas seemed to be engaged in interminable discussions. The Legionaries, cooped up in their filthy ship in the middle of winter, became suspicious and then unruly. Permission was even refused to land a Swiss soldier4 who had been taken ill on the voyage. Eventually the decision was reversed, but it came too late to save his life. To quieten the unrest it was agreed that they would be allowed ashore but only in small parties and on condition that they did not enter the town.

  • 5 Gottfried Müller, the Philhellene who survived, related this incident. He mentions that his compan (...)

17For the first time the Germans recognized the welcome that awaited them. One party that approached the town was driven away with stones. Another was taken to a hut outside the town, where one Legionary recognized two friends from his schooldays in Bremen. They had both been apprentices in a merchant house and had been released from their contracts to go to Greece on one of the earlier philhellenic expeditions. They lay in rags, filthy, covered with vermin and suffering severely from fever. One, who had been wounded near Nauplia had a huge swelling on his leg and had gone blind in one eye. They had no money and had long since sold their weapons and all their possessions. The Legionaries gave them money, but seem to have been so revolted by the filth and stench that they did little more to help. One of the two Philhellenes died within a few days.5

18Meanwhile the Legionaries still stayed in their ship in the harbour. Kephalas was perpetually engaged in talks with the Hydriotes and was forever announcing that the contract with the Greek Government was about to be signed, but nothing happened, until at last the inevitable happened. A mutiny broke out. The commander of one of the companies threatened to blow up the ship by setting fire to the powder magazine unless they were allowed ashore. Calm was restored and then two weeks after their arrival at Hydra they were finally permitted to disembark.

19By this time Kephalas had lost virtually all his authority. The Legion divided into two, a ’loyalist party’ and the others. Dittmar became leader of the discontents, Kephalas issued arms to a few members of the loyalists and they acted as a kind of military police to keep the others in obedience. In one affray several men were badly wounded before peace was restored.

20At last Kephalas announced that the contract had been signed and that the Legion was to leave Hydra and go to the mainland, leaving the consignment of arms at Hydra, but by this time the Legionaries were in no mood to believe anything that Kephalas said. They insisted on seeing the contract and refused to part with the store of arms. They addressed numerous angry protests to the Greeks but without result. The Scipio had left, they had spent their money, and realized that the store of arms was the only asset they had left to pay their passage home.

21Gradually a compromise was worked out. The Legion agreed to leave the arms at Hydra under seal and go to the mainland hoping that there they would be able to make some arrangement with the Greeks. As one of them argued, in Germany they were an illegal force and, if they were not careful, they would be declared illegal in Greece as well. Their only hope was to stick together and try to insist on the terms of the contract being met. And so they left Hydra for the mainland. They offered to take with them the surviving sick Philhellene, who still lay in his hut outside the town, but he was too ill to be moved and was left behind.

22It is clear that the arrival of the German Legion came as a complete surprise to the Greeks. The only man who might have been able to sort out the muddle was Mavrocordato but at this time he was at the other side of the country directing the defence of Missolonghi. In the Peloponnese the captains were entirely in control. They had defeated the Turkish invasion and taken over Nauplia: they had no need of a European regular force. Indeed, it was the last thing they wanted to see. They were not bothered by the arrival of the hundred and twenty men of the Legion: they were much more concerned at the talk of follow-up expeditions which were supposed to be on their way at monthly intervals, and the prospect of having these men settled, as the story ran, on the lands seized from the Turks. They were especially determined that the large store of arms should not fall into the hands of the Europeanized Greeks and so give them a new opportunity of interfering with their authority. The Hydriotes shared these interests and aspirations of the captains, content to pursue their profitable mixture of trade and piracy in conditions of local independence.

23No one in the German Legion ever seems to have understood what lay behind the attitude of the Greeks. They protested that all they wanted was the opportunity to fight for Hellas, but their pathetic efforts to show off their military skill by staging parades merely reinforced the determination of the Greeks that they should never have an opportunity of exercising it. The Greek leaders could not, of course, reveal what they were really thinking. Instead they procrastinated, saying the Legion was welcome but there was no task for it just at the moment, saying how they wished they could be of help if they only had the resources, talking aimlessly of sending it to Crete or Euboea, but all the time spreading muddle, confusion, and distrust. The Legionaries, having consumed the supplies they had brought with them, asked to be given food but even this was refused. Food was undoubtedly short, but it was obvious that the protestations of the Greek leaders that they had none to spare was exaggerated to say the least. Perplexed and angry in a situation they did not understand the Legionaries could only conclude, as so many of the earlier Philhellenes had concluded, that the Greeks were a greedy, ungrateful, and untrustworthy race.

24Hopefully, they awaited the arrival of the promised follow-up expeditions which were supposed to come every month, but events at the other end of Europe had supervened. The French authorities at Marseilles had been systematically taking statements from returning Philhellenes since they first began to appear back at Marseilles at the end of 1821. The wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly, but gradually the French Government built up a picture of what conditions were really like in Greece. After the departure of the German Legion in November 1822 the order came through that no more philhellenic expeditions were to be allowed to leave Marseilles. The French decision may be partly explained by the consideration that they no longer wanted to stand out against the policy of Metternich and the other powers. The evidence is, however, that the decision was taken mainly for humanitarian reasons. The returning Philhellenes were able to persuade the French Government (even if they never succeeded in persuading the Greek Societies) that to allow volunteers to go to Greece was to send young men uselessly to their death. At the end of 1822, with the closure of Marseilles, there was now no means whereby expeditions of Philhellenes could be sent to Greece from Mediterranean ports.

25As 1823 went on, the men of the Legion, hanging uselessly around the streets of Nauplia, gradually gave way to despair. The old division between the loyalists and those who wanted to strike out on their own, opened and shut and opened again, but neither party had a credible line of action to suggest. They were gradually obliged to sell off their possessions and their weapons in defiance of the contract. Finally, abandoning all hope of continuing in Greece as a disciplined military force, the loyalists decided to pool their resources and send one of their members back to Darmstadt to ask the Societies for money to bring them home. Sergeant Kolbe was chosen and set off. Few expected to see him again.

  • 6 Millingen, p. 28.

26By the summer the German Legion had ceased to exist. Man after man, as he felt he could bear no more, took his luck in his hands, and went off to try to hitchhike his way back to Europe. Some fifty or sixty joined the hundreds of disgruntled Philhellenes who were already to be found scattered all over the Levant and in the quarantines of Europe. The remainder gradually sank into misery. Plagues swept the town and at least twenty-five died of disease during 1823. Kephalas himself was one of the victims. A visitor who saw the remnant of the Legion in the autumn says that they were subsisting on tortoises.6

27With the disintegration of the German Legion the first period of philhellenism comes to an end. Between the outbreak of the Greek Revolution in the spring of 1821 and the end of 1822 about six hundred men from the countries of Western Europe set out to join the cause. Of these, over one hundred and eighty are known by name to have died. If one excludes the German Legion, of whom a high proportion survived, the death-rate among the Philhellenes was about one in three, astonishingly high considering how many stayed only a few days or weeks in the country. With few exceptions the others acquired a hatred and disgust of the Greeks which they were to carry to their graves. At the end of this first period of philhellenism, only a few dozen volunteers were still active in Greece and they were mostly exiles with no other home.

28It is difficult to claim that this huge sacrifice achieved anything. The Greek Revolution took its course during the first two years and was influenced only marginally by the activities of the volunteers. One must conclude gloomily that the results of their efforts were all negative – disillusionment of the Greeks with European military methods, disillusionment in Europe as reality obtruded into the philhellenic myths.

29Yet in many ways the first period showed the philhellenic ideal at its most pure. The professors, lawyers, merchants, churchmen, and burghers of south-west Germany, Switzerland, and elsewhere who contributed to send the volunteers to Greece made their sacrifice in all innocence. They had no self interest to promote. They genuinely believed in the identity of the Ancient and Modern Greeks, in the ancient debt owed by Europe which Greece was at last calling in, in the concept of regeneration, in the benevolence of organized Christianity, in the hateful inferiority of Turks and Moslems, in the perfectibility of man by constitutions, in international liberalism, and no doubt in other attractive but questionable propositions. The volunteers themselves, for all their absurdities, generally went to Greece motivated in part at least by feelings of duty and sacrifice. They would have served Greece – as their successors were to do – despite everything, despite poor food and hard conditions, lack of pay, atrocities, anarchy, if only they had been given any encouragement to believe that their presence and sacrifice were welcome.

30By the end of 1823 philhellenism in Germany and Switzerland, the regions where it had flourished most luxuriantly, had withered away. The reports of the returning Philhellenes and the constant pressure of the larger powers had taken their effect. By 1824 it had apparently been totally eradicated. Yet within two years another bloom was to appear.


1 Lieber, p. 157. In the United States he became a distinguished political philosopher and university teacher. He was the founder of the Encylopedia Americana.

2 A copy of Kephalas’ proclamation is reproduced in Statuts dela Societad d’ajüt per ils Grecs in Engadina, 1822.

3 The anonymous author of the Tagebuch published at Dinkelsbühl in 1823.

4 Amand Gysin.

5 Gottfried Müller, the Philhellene who survived, related this incident. He mentions that his companion who died, Georg Dunze, had never left Hamburg, his native town, before he came to Greece.

6 Millingen, p. 28.


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