THE GREEK EVZONES
Allan Sinclair, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
In 1991 the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) received a donation of over 1 000 model soldiers from the estate of Mr R J Nurse. For the most part, the collection consists of a large number of model soldiers of the British Army in ceremonial dress. It does, however, include other soldiers from around the world, an example being the Greek Evzones. This small part of the collection consists of eight soldiers – an officer, a colour ensign and a party of six escorts to the colour. The soldiers are painted in the ceremonial dress of the Greek Evzones.
What are the Evzones? The Evzones, or Evzoni, is the name given to the elite ceremonial unit of the Greek Army. It has a rich history which stretches over more than a century. The Evzones, also known as the Tsoliades, were founded in 1867 as both a combatant and a ceremonial force.
In 1833, after Otto of Bavaria became King of Greece, the Greek Army was organised along new lines. Bavarian forces formed the basis of the line infantry battalions, which each consisted of one rifle company designated as skirmishers or Evzones. In addition, ten light skirmisher battalions were formed from Greek nationals attired in a uniform based on the dress of the klephts of the War of Independence (1821 – 1829).
In December 1867, the first four elite Evzone light battalions were formed with the task of guarding the frontier along the Greco-Ottoman border. Gradually the role of this force became solely ceremonial. The name has changed over the years from Palace Guard to Flag Guard to Guard of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to Royal Guard and, finally since 1974, to Presidential Guard.
Even though the Guard is a predominantly ceremonial unit, all personnel are volunteers drawn from the Infantry, Artillery and Armoured Corps of the Greek Army. It is a great honour for a young soldier to become an Evzone and prospective volunteers are usually identified during basic training. Such volunteers must conform to the minimum height requirement of 1.86 m and must first serve a minimum of six months in an operational army unit before beginning their Evzone training.
The unit is famous around the world for its unique traditional full dress uniform which embodies centuries of national struggles and times of peace in Greece. The uniform goes back to the Evzones (well-girl) fighters of the time of Homer. It developed into a specific type of uniform during the period of the Turkish occupation of Greece. Later, during the Greek Revolution of 1812 against the Ottoman Empire, the uniform was adopted by revolutionary war-leaders and fighters as the official national costume. At first, it was only issued to native Greek light battalions but its popularity soon led to it being adopted as the official uniform of the Evzones in 1867. Following a few minor changes throughout the 20th Century, it has become the familiar uniform as seen today.
The basic elements of the uniform are the following:
1. The Phareon, a scarlet garrison cap with a long black tassel showing the national emblem of Greece in the front.
2. A cotton Foustanella kilt-like garment consisting of 400 pleats representing the 400 years of the Turkish occupation of Greece.
3. A cotton undershirt with wide sleeves.
4. White woollen stockings for other ranks and long red trousers for officers.
5. Black tasselled knee garters.
6. Red Tsarouhi leather clogs with a black pompom.
7. A leather cartridge belt and an M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle with a bayonet for other ranks.
8. An 1812 sabre for officers.
The basic colour of the uniform worn in winter is navy blue and closely resembles the service uniform worn until 1910. The summer uniform is light khaki and similar in design to the field uniform adopted by the Evzone regiments worn after that date. The full dress uniform which derives from the traditional dress of mainland Greece is worn on Sundays, important holidays, the reception of foreign dignitaries and other special occasions. Evzones can also sometimes be seen in a royal blue and red uniform based on the traditional male costume of Crete or in the black traditional habit once worn by the Pontic Greeks.
Officers are armed with a sabre instead of a rifle. Their uniform is distinguished from that of enlisted men by being imperial purple with gold brocades instead of blue with silver brocades and by the substitution of buskins for the stockings. The kilt is also longer and finishes below the knee while the sleeve covers are worn on the arms instead of being fastened to the coat. Rank insignia is worn on the phareon below the national emblem of Greece.
In modern times the Presidential Guard comprises two Evzone companies and one command company. They are headquartered in the same barracks as was used at the time of the founding of the unit. These barracks are referred to as the George Tzavellas Barracks named after the leader and hero of the 1821 Revolution.
The unit takes precedence in all military parades while the march style is carried out at 48 beats per minute with the troops striking the ground forcefully with their right foot at several intervals. The standard march is the Evzonaki (little Evzone). The duties of the Evzones consist of the following:
– The deployment of a 24-hour guard of honour at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Presidential Mansion, Parliament and the Main Gate of the Barracks.
– The official raising and lowering of the national flag were carried out on the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis.
– Serving as Guard of Honour to the President and visiting leaders of foreign countries.
– Serving as Guard of Honour to Foreign Ambassadors during the time in which they present their credentials to the President.
Sentries on duty must be still at all times except when positions are switched every fifteen minutes. When movement is required, this is carried out in a very slow and highly stylized manner. There is always one Evzone dressed in normal fatigues and police surveillance nearby to ensure that no one harasses the Guard. The rotation of the guard, known as “little changes” takes place every hour on the hour. This involves two incoming sentries to take the place of two existing sentries and a supervising Corporal of the Change. The Grand Change takes place at 11:00 on Sunday morning and includes the entire Guard with officers and a military band taking part in a march to the Tomb from the barracks and back again. The event has become a popular Sunday morning spectacle for residents and tourists in Athens.
Two significant episodes which have occurred over the past twelve years are proof of the discipline and dedication of the Evzones. The first incident happened in 2001 when a Molotov Cocktail was thrown at a sentry box in front of the Parliament building in Athens. The wooden structure soon became engulfed in flames but the Evzone standing next to it did not even blink an eye let alone move until an NCO in standard uniform ordered him, with his uniform scorched and partly smoking, to move.
The second incident occurred in January 2010 when a makeshift bomb was found 20 m from where the Evzones stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The police were called in and informed the Evzones of the imminent threat. The sentries, however, refused to leave their posts and remained on duty while the bomb exploded.
This is an example of how collections such as the model soldiers can provide insight into a subject such as the Greek Evzones, a subject which normally would be foreign to students of South Africa’s military history.