Colonel Joseph Baleste is one of the most important French Philhellenes who served in the Greek Revolution. He holds a prominent position as he is considered to be the first trainer and commander of the Greek military. He was born in 1790 in Chania, Crete, but was naturalized French and died in 1822, fighting heroically for the liberation of Greece.
Despite his important role in the Greek war of independence, he remains almost unknown. He is mentioned in historical texts with many different birth places and names. However, historical research into archival sources proves that Baleste came from a family of French merchants from Marseille, France, registered in the Chamber of Commerce of the city. His birth in Chania and his French nationality are confirmed by the biographer of the Philhellenes, Henry Fornèsy, and it is also supported by Baleste’s only Greek historiographer, P. Koumantos. Moreover, the archives of the French Consulate in Chania show that the Baleste family is one of the French families from Marseille who had settled there for commercial reasons, already before the French Revolution, and that they had developed strong links with Greece, as some of their male members had married Greek women.
Among them, we find the father of Joseph Baleste, merchant Jean-François Baleste. His name is confirmed both by the “Archives of Greek Paligenesia” and by a document published in the Cretan Historical Documents by Nikolaos Tomadakis and Anthoula Papadakis. Jean-François Baleste married Katerina Venolopoulou, who died in Chania on 8 April 1797, the day she gave birth to her daughter (and sister of Joseph), Marie-Thérèse, as noted in the marriage certificate found in the civil registry of Marseille.
At the beginning of his military career, Baleste served as a volunteer in the 1st Infantry Regiment of Napoleon’s Army in 1808, and in September 1814. The same year he left for Crete, while he was already a captain of the French Army. When the Greek Revolution broke out, Baleste was in Trieste where he met and decided to follow Dimitrios Ypsilantis, overwhelmed with enthusiasm for the liberation of Greece. Indeed, the young Baleste, to whom Spiliadis refers with the name “Vallesta the Hellene”, was fluent in the Greek language, and the Cretans regarded him as their compatriot. He had good manners, many qualifications, a polite face, and an imposing stature, as witnessed by his portrait painted by Adam de Friedel and published in 1830, and furthermore, he was educated, brave and unselfish.
Ypsilantis began, immediately after his arrival from Trieste in Vervena in July 1821, recruiting and organizing a regular army. He entrusted the duties of instructor, as well as commandership, to Baleste, who was himself promoted to the rank of Colonel. Soon, the force reached 500 men, it was divided into three Companies, and then transferred to Kalamata. Baleste trained the regiment according to European standards in order to become the core of the Greek Army that Ypsilantis aspired to create. The venture would have been successful, and this would have played a decisive role in the future of the war of independence, if the local leaders had not deprived the regiment from the necessary means to maintain the corps, and especially from food provisions. Even worse, the Greek military leaders – opponents of Ypsilantis, opposed the formation of a regular army and defamed the profession of regular soldier. The strong opposition of the irregular fighters (Armatoloi) to any concept of organization and military discipline, prevented the Greek government from founding a regular army in time. This unfortunate evolution left Greece, in the most critical phase of the Revolution, exposed to the forces of Ibrahim Pascha without the ability to oppose the invasion.
Had the experienced philhellene Baleste been allowed to complete his mission and establish a regular army at the beginning of the Greek Revolution, the course of the war would have been quite different.
In any case, it is undisputed that Baleste was a brave officer, whose courage is complimented by a large number of his colleagues. Even the ‘capricious’ Maurice Persat, praises the French officer, writing that “he was undoubtedly the bravest of all the Philhellenes and the most generous. He had distinct virtues. He disapproved the flattery, and disliked those running around the administration, whom he called army pests. Baleste had a humility whose memory made the Philhellenes blush with shame […]”.
In August 1821, Baleste was in command of the Greek Regular Army, when he prevented the Turkish fleet from disembarking at Kalamata. Then he took part in the siege of Tripolitsa. During the riots that took place in the fall of 1821, he, along with other Philhellenes, managed to rescue part of the civilian Turkish population.
Meanwhile, his soldiers suffered from hunger and began to starve daily, while Baleste’s appeals to the Government were in vain. Even worse, during the failed siege of Nafplio (4 December 1821), a large number of soldiers and Philhellenes were killed. Finally, during the siege of Acrocorinth (14 January 1822), the Corps, abandoned by its leader Ypsilantis, who was seriously ill and exhausted from the deprivations, was finally dissolved.
Being unable to remedy to the situation, Baleste decided to accept an invitation he received from the Cretans of the Peloponnese, urging him to support the operations of the Greeks in Crete. He took about two-thirds of the Corps and left for Chania.
Kritovoulidis reports that the Cretans accepted him gladly as they considered him to be “an experienced officer in war operations” required for the Cretan struggle.
Baleste arrived in Crete on 20 March 1822, and after meeting with the Governor General of the island, Mikhail Komninos Afentouliev, he went to Rethymnon. There, during a confrontation with the Turks in the Platanias region, he managed to get them to retreat. Using his prior military experience from the seizure of fortresses in Peloponnese, he foresaw that without a fortress it would not be possible to consolidate the revolution in Crete.
For this reason, he conceived a plan to take over the fortress of Rethymnon, supported by many local Cretans. He was convinced that relying on his army of three thousands, he was capable of taking over Rethymnon. However, according to Pouqueville, he was weak as he had just recovered from fever and it would have been difficult for him to lead this effort.
On the day of the battle, disagreements between the local chiefs did not allow him to implement his war plan in full, forcing his troops to retreat. Eighty of them were killed and many were captured, including Kokkinos, Baleste’s aide from Chios, who appears to have escorted him to Greece from Trieste. Baleste himself, was unable to walk, and he was carried by a Greek soldier who tried to hide him in a dense bush. Unfortunately, the Turks found him on their return and killed him.
Spiliadis describes in a very eloquent manner his tragic death. The Turks, first cut off his head and his right arm, with which he held his sword, passed them on to a stick and paraded with it around the camp amidst cheers and shots. An Italian newsletter of 1844 notes that the death of Baleste was celebrated officially by the entire Turkish fleet, which engaged in festivities. Then the members of Baleste’s body were sent to Constantinople, as a gift to Pasha Kara Ali, who hung them on the Turkish flagship, along with hundreds of heads of many other Greek fighters.
When Konstantinos Kanaris and George Pippinos blasted the Turkish flagship a few months later, they revenged the slaughters of Chios orchestrated by the Turks and the death of the great Philhellene Colonel Joseph Baleste.
Baleste’s death shocked the regular soldiers and Philhellenes so deeply, that it gave reason to publish a French lament song.
Unfortunately, the way many Greek chiefs treated Baleste, in their effort to prevent the deployment of a regular army, deprived Greece of the valuable services of many Philhellenes, who were disappointed; many of them even decided to return to their countries.
Thus, on 14 April 1822, the “multifaceted and full of noble sentiments” according to Trikoupis, Baleste, was lost. This great Philhellene, can, according to Raybaud, claim the honor of being “the first” to step on the territory of Greece with the brave thought to shed his blood for it.
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