One hundred years ago on October 5th 1915 a tired and under strength division of British soldiers landed on the quay at Salonika in northern Greece. The Bulgarian army, part of the Axis forces, were closing in on the borders of Macedonia. They had routed the Serbian Army which was now in retreat across the Albanian Alps in the freezing winter, over perilous passes, snow covered ledges around precipices, tumultuous and dangerously swollen rivers, dying by the hundreds on this terrible journey. Often the soldiers were lucky to be offered even a little bread as they made their way and many died from typhus, starvation and exhaustion.
Their plight awakened the sympathy of the British public who demanded that something should be done to help this devastated country. The Scottish nurses had already gone over there to help the Serbs. These amazing, brave and very modern women (they wore shorter skirts, hair and drove the jeeps!) retreated with the Serbian army over these dangerous mountain roads, often on foot, though some pack-horses were requisitioned at Ipek. The nurses eventually made their way via Scutari to Italy and London. The Serbian army eventually made it to Corfu where they regrouped and rested and were at the end able to join in the fierce fight to regain their homeland.
At first the British government was unenthusiastic about participating in this new campaign because it seemed to deploy troops much needed elsewhere in Europe, particularly on the Western Front and to implement the plan of invading via Galipolli into Turkey. Plus the position of the Greeks was uncertain at the time because the Royalist and the pro-Venizelists were totally in opposition to one another. Eleftherios Venizelos felt Greece was still in the Dark Ages and wanted to bring his country closer to Europe and modern ways while King Constantine was naturally inclined to keep the status quo and favour his German relations. Like most of the monarchs of Europe, who were all in some way related to the German royal family, Constantine had married Sophia of Prussia, the Kaiser’s sister and his leanings were towards the Axis. However, the British King, George V, was also related to the German families through his ancestor Queen Victoria and married to Princess Mary of Teck, yet he was fervently British by now and even went so far as to change the family name of Saxe Coburg Gotha to Windsor when anti-German feeling in Britain became too strong.
Constantine opted for the placatory move of remaining supposedly ‘neutral’ and yet the Royalist camp did all they could to undermine the movements of the Allied Forces while German and Bulgarian spies stood openly and brazenly on the quayside and reported movements back to their superiors. Not a good state of affairs! This ridiculous situation was eventually resolved by the decisive action of the French General, Sarrail.
The British soldiers remained ill equipped due to these reservations on the part of the War Office who saw the whole thing as a bit of a ‘sideshow’. The soldiers over there, already weary from campaigns in Flanders, France and Malta, felt they were the forgotten army. Left in the summer with no helmet protection against the fierce glowing sun in a treeless landscape, trying to survive the winters with no decent uniform coats to combat the freezing Vardar winds that blew across the ancient river, often blowing away tents and penetrating to the bone. At first they had no heating or real shelter except the odd tarpaulin. To compound their miseries, poor sanitation led to dysentery and enteric. But the worst problem was always the flies and mosquitoes. The female Anopheles mosquito loved the blood of humans and was rife in this area of shallow, stagnant pools and marshes round the Struma Valley through which flowed the River Stryma. Adequate mosquito netting was not supplied until 1917. There were 481,262 non battle casualties and half of these were due to malaria.
Sir Ronald Ross, an army surgeon out there at that time, studied the situation calling the mosquito ‘the unseen, small but million murdering cause.’ Quinine was administered and gin and tonic; rubbing down sick men with ice, getting them to drink beer and eat custard tarts were said to help – probably more as a psychological cure than a medical one! But it made no real difference. The enemy was the terrain and the incompetence of superiors in charge whose base was in the hot dry climate of Egypt and who had no understanding of what the men in Macedonia suffered.
At first a great deal of work was effected by the Royal Engineers who made major roads across the unpassable terrain and along centuries old tracks of oxen and donkeys which wended their way over the Hortiach Hills. The men were virtually in a concentration camp of their own around Salonika. Barbed wire had been placed everywhere and jokingly, the soldiers referred to themselves as Birds in the Birdcage and spent a great deal of time being inactive. No point in wasting time and, in a very British manner, the men turned to gardening tomatoes and other vegetables when entrenched for long periods with little other activity. This earned them the derisive nickname back home of ‘The Gardeners of Salonika’ People in Britain thought they were having an easy time of it out there!
However, all was not gloom and doom and the British organised pantomimes in village barns and produced some amazing theatrical productions with music and costumes procured from heaven knows where. The officers were particularly good at fulfilling commissions for wigs, make up, false jewellery when they were on leave in the city. Cricket, football and badminton were also favourites. How could the British survive without sport!! They also had horse races of a quality that astonished the other Allies who enjoyed the shows as much as anyone. It alleviated the intense boredom the poor men must have felt. Another favourite was racing the old tortoises that roamed the hills. Pets of various kinds kept the animal-loving British entertained also.
A favourite story about such a tortoise was that of Hortiach the tortoise. He was adopted in July 1918 by a Miss Taylor who was a cook with the Voluntary Aid detachment at the Sick Sisters Hospital, Hortiach. He was a tiny little tortoise at first but a diet of lettuce, dandelion leaves, buttercups and stolen seedlings plus some bread and butter and cake for tea fattened up this little tortoise to a become twice its original size! Miss Taylor took her tortoise back to Devon, England with her where it seems that life agreed well with Hortiach who could roam the garden at ease.
Almost no reinforcements were sent after the end of 1916 and this reduction in strength meant that the British force was unable to help with any really effective action and their final role was mainly diversionary. But the men kept up their morale and fought bravely alongside the French, Greek, Italian, Serbian and colonial troops (from India, Africa and Indochina) at appalling cost. Many divisions – especially the Scottish, were almost wiped out in the final offensive.
What is new, we ask ourselves, we modern descendants of these brave people? Wasn’t that meant to be the war to end all wars? The year 1915 and Europe was in turmoil, invaded by fleeing refugees from countries thrown in disarray by invasion and war just as it is today with the Syrian crisis. Germany was at the centre of the matter, in a position of superiority, as it is now – though in a more benevolent role than it was then. Fate it seems, works in circles; cycles of war, cycles of movement and displacement as if some giant hand is stirring up humanity with a soup ladle.
The Greek author, Stratos Myrivilis (1892-1969) summed it up in his thoughtful novel Life in the Tomb.
Covering all these mountains a few years hence will be a snow of granulated bones, remains of soldiers who arrived from the four corners of the earth to die for the ‘freedom of the peoples’
My interest in the Salonika Campaign came about when I was researching information about the Red Cross Nurses who had gone over to Salonika after 1916. I had no relations in that campaign but because of my love of Salonika, the history inspired me when writing my novel The Long Shadow. Reading the letters, diaries, seeing the photographs and uniforms of that time was poignant and moving and so this campaign will always be meaningful to me. I joined the Salonika Campaign Society here in the UK and every year we lay a wreath on the Cenotaph in Whitehall London to commemorate these brave soldiers. Plus all the Allies – British, French, Greek, Italian, Russian, Indian, African Serbian – who fought at that time meet up each year to lay wreaths on the memorials in various cemeteries around Thessaloniki.
It is good to remember bravery, sacrifice and devotion to duty. Not words in favour in this modern age.
Loretta Proctor, November 23, 2015
The Long Shadow published in the UK 2012 (Discounted on Kindle until November 27, 2015
and in Greece published as O Iskios tou Polemou 2014