H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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of our men out in Macedonia for a further indefinite
period, they must be amused and interested as much
as possible. At the end of 1917 and the beginning of
1918, indeed, it became very clear that the Salonica
Army would have to fend for itself in every way. With
Russia off his hands, there was every possibility that
the Spring of 1918 would see the enemy engaging in a
big offensive in Macedonia in order to try and complete
the tale of his conquests on the Eastern fronts. But
there were no reinforcements to be expected from home,
or from any other front. The Salonica front was, in
fact, cut off from the rest of the world ; or at any rate,
our only link was the perilous one of the Mediterranean,
which the Navy held in the teeth of enemy submarines
and lack of Allied Naval co-ordination. It was a case



of God helps those who help themselves. The B.S.F.
combed itself out and made the most of its available
supply of fighting material. Then knowing that at any
time the men might be called U{X)n to wage a very un-
equal fight to maintain their footing in Greece, it deter-
mined to keep them in the best spirits possible. They
could not go to Blighty; therefore Blighty, as far as it
could be done, should be brought to them. The authori-
ties themselves encouraged sane and healthy amuse-
ment in every possible way. We had prepared for the
worst, and now the only thing to do was to make the
best of it. Under the direct stimulus of official help
the B.S.F. saw a great efflorescence of theatrical enter-
tainment. Macedonia might soon be burning. We
would do our fiddling before and not during the event.
So that we had the rather extraordinary coincidence
that the finals of the great B.S.F. Boxing Champion-
ships were being fought off, before a great and most
appreciative crowd, on the very days in March, 1918,
when the Germans first attacked Ln such overwhelming
strength on the Somme. One can write of these things
now that the B.S.F. has so signally played its part
in achieving complete and final victory. Before it
would not have been so easy.

In France everything that went to the making of an
entertainment was fairly easy to hand. In Macedonia
practically everything had to be improvised. No wan-
dering parties of London "stars" ever went out there,
but officers and men found their own talent, and plenty
of it. Quite often it was of a professional kind. After
all, once you mobilise a whole nation you are bound
to find the most diversified talent scattered throughout
the Armies. A hospital orderly reveals himself to be,
in private life, a scene painter of merit. A mule driver
proves to be a member of a well-known Folly troupe.



Lieut. Wunpip of the Rumpshires had a mottled career
up and down the American Continent, and danced two
years for his living in New York music-halls. A gay
young pilot of the R.A.F. proves to have specialised at
Cambridge in female parts with an authentic Cockney
accent. All sorts of odd people who seemed to be
merely horny-handed reveal themselves as capable,
even soulful musicians. Aladdin could not have done
better. The O.C. Concert Party clapped his hands and
the right man, more or less, ap{>eared. The question of
costumes presented the greatest difficulties, and many
have been the journeys down to Salonica to find things
that very often Salonica did not possess. The fire
brought on a crisis in this respect. Fortunately, in the
case of Divisional shows, at any rate, the question of
costumes and other "props" was thought out months
ill advance, and officers going home on leave were
pressed into the service of finding all that was necessary
for the forthcoming pantomime and bringing them

And then the girls of our B.S.F. shows ! Really,
one hardly knows how to begin to talk about them.
I am sure that in all the theatres of war (whichever
way you like to employ the word) the B.S.F. girls were
far and away the best. They developed to a pitch of
daintiness and perfection which it is quite impossible
to indicate to those unfortunate persons who never sat
in a Macedonian theatre. Necessity is the mother, etc.
We had no ladies and so had to make them. And it
was quite impossible, while the show was in progress,
to realise that these delicate young creatures were
young men who drove heavy motor lorries or threw
bombs at the Bulgar. It all seems to show that
English beauty is essentially masculine. Take a likely
looking young man and dress him up suitably and he



makes quite a pretty girl. But then, only the ghosts
of the burnt-out shops of Venizelos Street could tell
to what lengths the indefatigable O.C. Concert Parties
went in order to obtain verisimilitude. It was an
article of faith that to feel and act like a girl on the
stage the player must copy the original down to the
smallest details of lingerie. No cotton stockings, for
instance, masquerading as the real thing. They had
to be silk — if silk could possibly be found. And it made
all the difference on the stage. Each big production
had its leaven of mediocre female impersonators who
were not expected to do more than look pretty in the
chorus. But each production also had something start-
ling to show. The qualities included striking beauty,
good dancing, good singing, and — particularly in one
case — amazing joie de vivi'e and diablerie and sprightli-
ness of the soubrette type. The real females who sang
in the Salonica music-halls were wooden compared to
some of our imitations.

To realise how much the concert parties and the
musicians meant to the Army in Macedonia, it is only
necessary to try and imagine what life would have been
like without them. To many thousands of men they
were the one link with the gaieties and the compara-
tively care-free existence they knew before the war.
Tommy was grateful to the men who had sufficient
talent to provide these distractions for him, and for his
part would willingly have seen them doing nothing else.
In some cases this was so. Eight shows a week and
rehearsals at a Divisional pantomime left no time for
other work. But many others worked hard at the
theatres only in the intervals of their military duties.
Certain leading troupes attained the dignity of touring
companies, and of course there was no question of their
doing anything else while on tour. Great occasions



were these when a concert party visited the camp. The
Home O.C. would have guests for dinner and a special
spread. Everybody would ride in from miles around,
and there would be the greatest joy and hilarity until
the time came for the Home O.C. to make a speech of
thanks to the O.C. Concert Party and his merry men.
Then a dreadful silence would descend on the hall of
mirth. Audience and company alike looked and felt
dreadfully embarrassed. In our honest British way we
cannot do these graceful little things without looking
as though we have been collectively condemned to
death. Relief and joy would come again when the
O.C. had delivered himself of his few words : " And
I am sure (pause) that all of us — er (pause) officers and
men alike are most grateful. . . In fact, a damned good
show. . ." And then everybody would sing lustily
"God Save the King." Nobody stumbled over that.

The most brilliant theatrical season of all was the
winter of 1917-18. The Divisions, by dint of long pre-
paration, surpassed themselves. The 26th Division
produced its splendid pantomime "Robinson Crusoe"
at the Divisional Theatre, Gugunci, and I think that,
taking it all round, and weighing up every detail, it
was the best variety show I saw produced in Mace-
donia. At Kopriva on the Struma, the 28th Division
produced its gorgeous production, "Bluebeard," a posi-
tive delight to the eye, with beautiful costumes and an
orchestra (mainly chosen from the 2 / 5th Durham Light
Infantry and the 23rd Battalion Welsh Regiment),
which entranced everybody and rivalled anything one
might have heard in London. The Kopriva theatre
was a huge old barn which, with a stage built on to it,
served its purpose admirably. Further down the Struma
valley the 27th Division produced "Dick Whittington."
This Division suffered from having no permanent



theatre. It was scattered over a long and difficult line,
and was not lucky in finding anything so good as the
Kopriva bam. But all difficulties were overcome and
the show was given in the villages of Dimitric and
Badimal and at Stavros. All the Divisional theatres
had excellently appointed bars and supper rooms at-
tached, and I remember, as I bought a two-shilling
Corona at the bar at Badimal, thinking how curious it
was that Nigrita, a little further down the valley, was
the scene in 1912 of a notorious massacre by the Bul-
garians. All the Divisional theatres had the added spice
that they were well within enemy artillery range — they
were, in fact, the most advanced of any war theatres —
and the programme contained instructions as to scat-
tering tactics in case of bombardment. But the Bulgar
hardly ever tried to shoot at them, and this was one
of the things put down to his credit.

I did a tour of the whole three pantomimes, and a
most amusing and pleasant experience it was ; this
combination of occasional artillery "strafes," a bomb-
ing raid (quite in the London style), and then the
evening's light music and gaiety — and during it all,
the patrols far out in the darkness of the valley or
crawling up and down the rugged ravines of Doiran.
The war was always there. There was much inter-
Divisional rivalry, but each production was one of
which its organisers had every reason to be proud. The
22nd Division that year did not produce a pantomime,
but relied on their excellent variety troupe, "The
Macedons." But later in 1918, they produced "The
Chocolate Soldier" — a wonderful effort, which every-
l:x)dy agreed was the best musical show of all.*

* In March, 1919, " The Chocolate Soldier " was produced at the
Petit Champs Theatre, Constantinople, and very much impressed the
local inhabitants. The 28th Division also produced its pantomime,



Then there was the 16th Corps Dramatic Society.
Here we are on different ground. I should think it
must have been one of the very best amateur dramatic
companies ever put together. I spent three or four
years in close touch with the London theatres, but I
never enjoyed a farce more than Sydney Grundy's "The
Arabian Nights," as produced by this Company. There
was some amazingly finished acting, and the three or
four women's parts were a source of strength, and not
weakness. The company was in charge of a Lieut. -
Colonel who had had much exj)erience of this sort of
work in India, and had the whole business as much at
his finger ends as his other business of machine-gunning.
One would like to give names, but once having begun,
one would hardly know where to stop, and there were
very many who deserved the gratitude of their

During this same winter there were innumerable
other shows elsewhere ; with battalions and brigades,
at the Base, at hospitals, and with M.T. Companies all
over the country. One cannot name them all, and I
have concentrated on the Divisional shows because they
were produced practically in the front line and with all
the difficulties and disadvantages of being near no
settled habitations. Night after night these Divisional
shows were crowded with happy infantrjTiien who for-
got entirely, for the time bemg, that they had been
away from home for three years or more. It is sad
to think how many of those dear chaps went under in
the final and victorious offensive of September, 1918,
after "sticking it" for so long. At the front and ever^''-
where else, the entertainments did an immense amount

" The Babes in the Wood," there. At Tiflis the 27th Divisional
Pantomime Company awakened a keen desire among Georgian and
Armenian society to see more of English plays and performances.



of good. They were, in fact, one of the chief factors
which enabled our men to keep their sanity after the
long hardship, monotony, sickness, and hope-deferred
of the Balkan campaign. There is no need to apologise
for them. They were as necessary as mules or shells.

Nor must we forget the various Divisional Horse
Shows which were organised from time to time; won-
derful functions which amazed our Allied visitors, and
where British manhood and British horseflesh were
seen at their best. Perhaps the most brilliant of all
was the 27th Divisional Horse Show, which was held in
July, 1917. The site, just on the edge of the Struma
Plain, was magnificent, and "everybody" was there —
nurses from the Base hospitals, delighted with the novel
experience of a trip up-country, and General Sarrail
sitting next to the British Army Commander in the
grand stand. Aeroplanes circled overhead to keep off
inquisitive Bulgar or Boche, and the weather was won-
derful. It was astonishing to think that a Division
very much in the field could have organised such a
show. And the horses made everybody's eyes sparkle.
At a Horse Show held by the 22nd Division at Gugunci,
the enemy heavily shelled the road leading to the
ground. It was an anxious day, as he could easily have
plumped his long-range shells into the show ground
itself. But he confined himself to the people and teams
going and coming, and shortly after leaving the show
the winning team of Heavy Artillery horses was de-
stroyed — a sad end to a day of triumph.

And a final word on the B.S.F. Boxing Champion-
ships, which were fought off a few miles up the Lembet
Road during the late days of March, 1918. Terraces
had been constructed in a natural amphitheatre over-
looking a dry nullah. At the finals on the third day
over 16,000 men were present. Just as all was ready,



the new French commander-in-chief. General Guillau-
mat, descended the long flight of steps cut in the hard
ground. As he reached the ringside and advanced to
shake hands with General Milne the band suddenly
struck up the Marseillaise, and the whole 16,000 rose
from their seats with one great spontaneous movement,
and stood at the salute or rigidly at attention. It was
a magnificently impressive moment. And one won-
dered, as the boxing progressed, what the two Generals
were talking about, or at any rate thinking about, as
they sat there side by side. The news from France
on March 23rd, 1918, was very dark indeed. . . Would
it be our turn next ?



Ourselves and our Allies.

When the British first went to Salonica they had to
begin from the beginning. In Eastern Europe they
were the least known of all the great nations. German,
Austrian, French, Italian and Russian — all these were
known and more or less understood. But we, although
our influence stretched wider throughout the world
than any of the others, came to Salonica and the Bal-
kans as complete strangers. A few Greeks who had
been in Egypt had perhaps rubbed shoulders with us,
but that was all.

At first, the impression of us was not too favourable.
For one thing French influence and prestige over-
shadowed us. French influence was king, the language
almost universal and the local people — all of whom
pretend to wear their hearts on their sleeves, and most
of whom can change them at will — thought of us as
quite a secondary factor. The campaign was under a
French command and French propaganda, we must
remember, was a more virile and energetic growth than
ours. I remember that when in August, 1916, the
British captured the difficult position of Horseshoe Hill,
on the Doiran Front, a local newspaper, the Opinion,
published in French by a Greek of strong French
leanings, came out with the following : —

" The English troops who have just come into con-
tact with the Bulgars have given proof of remarkable
abnegation and bravery. In the combat which took place


Our Balkan Allies: Serbs at Mikra,
after landing trom Corfu, 191 6.

Evzones of the Venizelist Army
leaving for the Front, 1917.


in the position known as Horseshoe the British troops
attacked the Bulgars with the bayonet with admirable
dash, forcing them finally to give up the ground. Mili-
tary circles (les milieux militaires) are extremely satis-
fied with the conduct of the English, all the more so as
these troops enter into line for the first time."

It was no doubt fairly well-meant, but for once
British G.H.Q. was annoyed, and the Opinion had its
nose tweaked by French G.H.Q. It was rather exas-
perating that the dear old British Empire should be
cheerily patted on the back by a Salonica journal. But
then comparatively few people outside our own country
have ever heard of Hastings, Agincourt, Crecy, the
Armada, Blenheim, Malplaquet, Quebec, Badajos, Tra-
falgar, Waterloo, Inkerman, the Mutiny, Rorke's
Drift, and a few score more historical " stunts " which
help to make up the story of Britain. And throughout
the war we were so busy impressing on everybody that
we were not a military nation that most of them finished
by believing we had never had a " scrap " at all ; or at
any rate nothing more than an occasional brush with a
handful of niggers.

We had to start, then, from nothing, and it soon
became less than nothing, because at first sight we were
regarded as a brusque and unpolite people. The
British officer or soldier stolidly went his way on the
pavements and gave the impression of not caring a
hang for anybody. He had not the easy ways and
flourishes of some of our friends, and the first impres-
sion therefore was that he had no manners. The
British officer, when he enters a cafe, does not usualJy
salute the assembled company as most of our Allies
do. It is a pleasant custom and is worth copying, but
happens not to be in our scheme of conduct. The
sole reason is that the average Briton is timid and a

129 K


little self-conscious, and hates, as he hates the Devil,
drawing attention to himself in public. This point
was, and largely remains, utterly misunderstood, and
is the basis of most errors on our account. The average
British officer would rather die than wear three or four
medals dangling on his breast. The average French
officer likes to do it, and is proud of the effect they
cause in public. Neither is right and neither is wrong.
It is simply the fundamental temperamental difference
between two peoples. But it is striking, all the same,
how sooner or later British masculine codes end by
imposing themselves on other nations, providing they
can be studied long enough. In this simple little detail
of medals, it was very noticeable that towards the end
of the Salonica campaign fewer and fewer Allied officers
wore their medals, and contented themselves with
ribbons. If there is a real standard of right and wrong
in these matters, then there is good ground for think-
ing that the British are alwaj^s nearer to it than any-
body else. Just as there are people, who, by some
superior endowment, may lay down the law as to
whether a work of art is good or bad, so there is a
people which has the gift of setting the masculine

On the other hand, the French are extraordinarily
simple and unostentatious in ways one would least
expect. A French general, for instance, is often a
much less impressive figure than a French sous-
lieutenant. A tiny star on the cuff of his jacket (or
two or three, according to his rank) is often the only
sign of distinction a French commander of a division
or army will carry. For the rest he is often dressed
in simple, unadorned horizon blue or khaki with the
plainest of kipis. And I have seen a French general of
Division sitting at a table in front of Floca's taking


his aperitif like any other man, and chatting away
vivaciously with a lieutenant. A British general could
no more do that, without losing something, than he
could buy bananas from a barrow in the street. All
French generals I happen to have talked to are the
same; simple, easy and, on ordinary occasions at any
rate, making almost a cult of being unadorned. Of
course, on " holidays and fete days " a French general
can be one of the most gorgeous and impressive of in-

The British rapidly gained ground in everybody's
esteem in Salonica. ^'Ah, les Anglais V^ I became
tired of people of various nationalities who told me
how much they loved the British ; what a revelation
we had been to them ; how straight, honest and un-
affected we were, and how wonderfully competent in
doing things. *' We misunderstood you at first it is
true. We did not know your ways. We thought you
had very little politeness. . . . But now ! Ah, les
Anglais !" The idea flourished until there came a time
when our prestige was almost overpowering. We had
to play second fiddle all through the Balkan campaign,
and the Great People at home never helped us a scrap,
because through a thousand ill-inspired megaphones
the world was told that Britain, after all, was only
playing a mediocre part in the war. What we achieved
in the Balkans we had to do "on our own," but the
result was that British stock rose highest in the local
Allied market. One smiled when people talked about
the British troops being taken away from Salonica to
some other field of war. We were an Allied Army of
five nations, and such a state of things must always be
a difficult compromise. There were many racial anti-
pathies and prejudices, and it is absurd to pretend —
now that the enemy has been beaten — that there were



not. These sometimes showed themselves sufficiently
on the surface to have caused much pleasure to the
Bui gar had he known. The British forces were, to a
large extent, the link which bound the whole Allied
Army together; our example and prestige, all the
stronger perhaps for not being too much insisted on,
was a factor always working for harmony. One cannot
better express it than by saying that we were the
ArmSe de Liaison. This is a point which ought to be
thoroughly understood at home. On this ground alone,
the British Divisions in Macedonia more than justified
themselves. They were not only a fighting, but a
political army, and it would at any time have been
the height of unwisdom to take them away — even if
their numbers had been replaced by troops of some
other country.

This high regard for the British sometimes became
a little embarrassing. It was occasionally so fervently
expressed that it was likely to cause irritation else-
where, and tliis was the last thing anybody desired.
M. Repoules, for instance, a former Greek Minister of
Finance, wrote an appreciation of the presence and
work of the various Allies in the Balkans in which it
was impossible not to see that he had " plumped " for
the British. He was quite nice about the others, but
lyrical about us. A long extract from the article was
translated for The Balkan News, and it is tj^pical of
our men that, immediately, a number of skits came in
making gentle fun of the eminent Greek's praises of
"our blue-eyed boys." One felt glad of this. It is
a dreadful thing when a nation comes calmly to accept
unlimited praise as being its rightful due. And there
is one tribute from M. Venizelos which was not made
public, but which I know to be absolutely authentic.
*' The British people," he said tio an acquaintance of



mine, "is in its civilisation two hundred years in
advance of any other nation in Europe." Well, well,
perhaps in sanitary matters we are.

In the early days the Allies were chiefly represented
by the French, the Serbs and ourselves. The Greeks
were still Constantine's, and the Italians and Russians
had not arrived. The French and the British were
already fairly well known to each other. But the Ser-
bians were new to us, and we were new to them, and
it was not long before a mutual admiration sprang up.
We admired them for their supreme soldierly qualities,
feit sympathy for their sufferings, and generally had a
big-brotherly affection for the little nation which had
been so tried. They on their part discovered us as a
revelation. Their horizon, before the war, had been
bounded by Austria and Germany, and those who had
ventured further afield had gone to Paris for their cul-
ture, and found much good by so doing. But England
they did not know, and in us they apparently found
all that they had been longing for. In a thousand in-

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 10 of 23)