Monday, 28 October 2019

When Greece said ‘No’
to fascism and oppression

The Greek flag flies on boat off the island of Paxos in the Ionian Islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ohi Day or Oxi Day (Επέτειος του «'Οχι»), celebrated throughout Greece and Cyprus and by Greek communities around the world on 28 October each year.

Ohi Day commemorates the day the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, rejected the ultimatum from the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on 28 October 1940. This day also recalls the Greek counter-attack against invading Italian forces in the mountains of Pindus during World War II, and the Greek Resistance during the war to occupying Italians and Germans.

Mussolini’s ultimatum was presented to Metaxas by the Italian ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi, around 3 a.m. on the morning of 28 October 1940.

Mussolini demanded Greece would allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy strategic locations – or face war. It is said Metaxas replied with a one-word laconic response: Όχι (No!).

Putting popular myth aside, the actual reply was in French: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre!’ (‘Then it is war!’).

The moment provides the background for a dramatic but humorous scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set on the Ionian island of Kephallonia, making Ohi Day well-known around the world.

In an immediate response to Metaxas’s ‘No’, Italian troops based in Albania attacked the Greek border two hours later at 5.30 a.m. That ‘No!’ brought Greece into World War II on the side of the Allies. Indeed, for a period, Greece was Britain’s only ally against Hitler.

Without that ‘No,’ some historians argue, World War II could have lasted much longer. One theory is that had Greece surrendered without any resistance, Hitler could have invaded Russia the following spring, rather than his disastrous attempt to capture it during winter.

On this morning 79 years ago, 28 October 1940, Greek people of all political persuasions took to the streets in masses, shouting «'Οχι», ‘No!’ From 1942, this day was celebrated as Ohi Day, first within the resistance and then after the war by all Greeks.

The Battle of Crete and the extra resources required to subdue Greece drained and distracted Nazi Germany from its efforts on other war fronts.

The Greek flag flying with the Byzantine flag at a monastery in Meteora (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today, Ohi Day is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus. The events of 1940 are commemorated with military and student parades, public buildings are decorated with Greek flags, there folk dances, and Greek Orthodox churches hold special services. Coastal towns may have naval parades or other celebrations on the seafront. In Thessaloniki, reverence is also paid to the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, and the city celebrates its freedom from Turkey.

There are traffic delays, especially near parade routes, some streets are blocked off, and most archaeological sites are closed for the day, along with most businesses and services.

In Dublin, Ochi Day and the fallen were marked at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning [27 October 2019], during the Divine Liturgy in the Greek Orthodox Church in Dublin, and in the afternoon at a holiday dinner in the Mykonos Restaurant on Dame Street.

In the West, politicians are always happy to credit ancient Greece with the development of democracy. But in the present crises in Europe, when Greece is often seen as a burden rather than a partner, it may be worth remembering that Europe owes modern Greece an unacknowledged debt for helping to preserve democracy against the Nazis and Fascists during World War II.

The Greek flag with Church flags at a church in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A report on Lichfield
lecture on the Comberfords
of Lichfield and Tamworth

With Mike Pearson (right) of Lichfield Civic Society and Dr David Biggs, chair of Tamworth and District Civic Society in Lichfield last month

Patrick Comerford

I was in Lichfield last month [17 September 2019], at the invitation of Lichfield Civic Society, to speak to speak about the Comberford family and its roots in the Lichfield and Tamworth area.

The website of Lichfield Civic Society in recent days has posted this report by Roger Hockney of that meeting and lecture:

Many of us have dabbled in ancestry research. Perhaps skeletons have emerged from the cupboard? Patrick Comerford had no skeletons to reveal when he made a return visit for our September meeting to talk about his family history but, nonetheless, he gave us a fascinating insight into the lives of a well-established local Staffordshire family. Comberford Hall, close to the Tamworth-Elford road and the River Tame is a Grade II listed Georgian house. The Moat House in Lichfield Street, Tamworth is much older; its roots may go back as far as the thirteenth century. Both properties were closely associated with the history of the Comberfords (not Comerfords – read on for an explanation!).

The Comberfords can trace their roots back to Alan de Comberford who was in possession of the Moat House around the mid-1300s. A family of growing influence, they diligently assembled land and property to become significant landowners in the area. Their wealth was reflected in bequests at this time to St Editha’s Church in Tamworth and to the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield. Land and property was also acquired in nearby Chesterfield and Wiggington. So, by the sixteenth century, the family were sufficiently influential for John Comberford to be elected both as an MP and as a member of the Guild in Lichfield. The Guild, Patrick explained, comprised the wealthy city merchants and was effectively the ‘local government’ of the City of Lichfield. In 1530 Humphrey Comberford was the Master of the Guild – in effect the City Mayor.

The Comberfords were also involved with Lichfield Cathedral. Henry Comberford was a precentor there in 1555. His Catholic views never left him and as a ‘recusant’ (a secret Roman Catholic) he was eventually dismissed for ‘lewd preaching’. For ‘lewd’, we need to understand that his sermons were seen to incline too much towards the Catholic faith. During the Civil War the Comberfords sided with the Royalists; and Col William Comberford and his nephew, another William, were present during the siege of Lichfield Cathedral. Indeed, Col William was very active in skirmishes around both Lichfield and Tamworth. Patrick told us that, cannily, William transferred his properties to a Trust to ensure that they were not forfeit upon the defeat of the Royalist cause. A member of the Trust was John Dyott; a name familiar to us all.

The family continued to live quietly with their lands and property during the Restoration period but, by the eighteenth century, their fortunes declined and their properties (including Comberford Hall and The Moat House) were sold. So, how does Patrick relate to this history? He comes from Ireland, not from Staffordshire. Why did he become interested in a Lichfield family? Perhaps the ‘skeleton in the cupboard’ is that his Irish branch of the family (without the ‘b’ in the name) is distantly related through the connections that Patrick is only now uncovering. From his work so far there is certainly a crossover in heraldic history between both sides of the family; and members of both sides of the family view themselves as related. Perhaps Patrick will uncover yet more information to corroborate his theories.

Patrick’s research adds another piece to the interlocking jigsaw of relationships between Lichfield families, many of whom we have learned about from previous presentations.