H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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formal gatherings it became plain that the Serbs had
taken us to their hearts and they were never tired of
saying so. And how many of our own people did one
hear saying, " By Gad, I admire the Serbs. They
have put up a fight." It was impossible not to be
impressed by the long-limbed, spare, well-set-up
soldiers of the Serbian Army. And we never forgot
that they were an Army which had been saved from
the very jaws of destruction. In us, the Serbs pro-
fessed to find striking qualities of efficiency in adminis-
tration, honesty, generosity, bravery, chic — quite a
catalogue of good things. The entente was complete,
and Serb and Briton were deUghted with the mutual

It was most impressive when the Serbs began to go



up the liiic again. Reconstituted at Corfu after being
rescued from the horrors of the Albanian retreat —
many, alas ! died after coming into Allied hands — tliey
completed their new training and re-grouping at the
camps at Mikra, near Salonica, and in the summer of
191G began to move up-country again to meet and
check the Bulgarian advance that was threatening. I
first saw them moving up on a hot July evening. I was
going to dinner at an Indian Medical Camp and they
filled the road for a mile or more. They had already
marched some eight or ten miles, and looked very hot
in their new French blue uniforms with blue steel hel-
mets, and the dust was rising from their feet like
steam. But they were fine upstanding fellows, lean
and hard, and everyone of them was browned to a rich
mahogany. When I came back three hours later, they
were still on the road, marching stolidly, silently, with
an utter absence of pomp or ceremony, every one of
them looking simply what he was — a fighting man
going out again to light. They had no illusions about
that. For several days they were moving up, infantry,
artillery and transport ; 120,000 of them, all that was
left of the 650,000 men Serbia had mobilized ; men of
the Vardar, Danube, Timok, Morava. Drin and Schu-
madia Divisions. (The Serbs name their Divisions
after the rivers of the country.) A few mornings after
this, I was awakened at about five o'clock by the sound
of a band playing selections from " Toreador " and
there the blue line was still filing past ; regiment after
regiment of them, their nut-brown faces shining in the
early morning sunlight. Poor Serbs ! The Great War
gave little respite to them, and of the 120,000 many
were soon to fall. When the final 1918 offensive came
they were able to muster with all ranks, all services,
and with 10,000 Yugo-Slavs included, only 80,000 men.



At about this time I attended a number of Serbian
ceremonies. There was the Slava, or feast day, of a
crack cavalry regiment for instance, out in the hills
just behind Sedes. It was a grilling hot day, and
everybody had to stand bareheaded at the religious
ceremony — a simple matter for a Serb, but an ordeal
for us. As we entered the sort of stockade in which
the regiment was, the Colonel at the gate kissed each
one of us on both cheeks. I met him in the street next
day, and he did not recognise me. It is rather curious to
be kissed by a man one day, and to be a stranger to him
on the next. He was, in a rather gipsy way, a very
handsome man, and was generally understood to have
been one of the leaders in the assassination of King
Alexander and Queen Draga; that dynastic tragedy
which — worked up and boomed by the Austrian Press
— did Serbia so much harm in the eyes of other nations.

After the religious ceremony we sat down to a tre-
mendous lunch which lasted for hours. We were sitting
under a long open thatched shelter, and the scene might
have been laid in Central Africa. General Moschopo-
lous, who was the head of the Greek command in
Salonica at that time, was present, and a certain Ser-
bian captain who always loved to make speeches
addressed himself directly to the Greek General, and
in vibrant tones assured him of the glorious part Greece
was shortly to play. As Constantine's attitude at that
time was becoming more and more dubious. General
Moschopolous looked very uncomfortable. After the
interminable lunch we danced the kola, which has been
described as the only ceremonial dance which can be
performed in long grass on a steep hillside wearing top
boots and spurs. You link hands in a long line and, to
the sound of the Serbian pipes, the line advances and
retreats, and at the same time each indi\adual dancer



performs evolutions of his own. Some of them indulged
in extraordinary feats of agility. I found it more than
hot enough merely to hold hands and move backwards
and forwards.

This particular Slava was held in celebration of
Kossovo Day. It has been remarked by most obser-
vers of the Serbs how much they live in the past, how
tenacious they are of nationality, and how remarkable
it is that in celebrating the battle of Kossovo they
should do honour not to a victory, but to the greatest
defeat in their history — the crushing defeat of 1389,
when the Serbian nation went down before the power
of the Turk. In a certain official publication, a writer
has hit off excellently this characteristic of the Serbs.
" No other nation," he says, " not even the Irish, lives
so continuously and intimately with its past as the
Serbian. To the Serbian peasant, the battle of
Kossovo, fought a generation before Agincourt, is in-
finitely nearer and more real than the South African
war to the ordinary British workman. The inclusion
of such and such a place in the Great Dushan's Empire
is a reason for its ' restoration ' to Serbia almost too
obvious to require argument. It is essential to keep
this in mind if one wishes to understand Serbian
policy or Serbian aspirations for national unity and

Stephen Dushan was, of course, the greatest of all
Serbs of olden times and his empire at one time
stretched over nearly all the Balkans. That is one of
the main difficulties in dealing with the Balkan ques-
tions. Each of the Balkan races can invoke an era
when some fighting ancestor held sway over much of
the rest. Consequently the extreme nationalist in any
of these countries points to a patch of territory and
says, " That is undoubtedly ours. In the — th century



our great Emperor so-and-so ruled the whole of it."
Such an argument is regarded as final. With the Serbs,
their history is kept amazingly alive by the many
poems and songs written round the national heroes
which are handed down from generation to generation
and recited or sung at all feasts. They charge in battle
with the names of their mediasval heroes on their lips.
It is this intense nationalism which spurred them on in
their long fight against adversity during the war, and
which finally enabled them to play a big part in recapn
turing their own country. The eulogy which Mr.
Balfour paid to them in his speech at the Lord Mayor's
banquet in 1918 was well deserved.

In January, 1918, I spent the Serbian Christmas with
the Headquarters of the Vardar Division on the Mog-
lena front. A massive lunch was followed at a very
short interval by a bigger dinner. We drank a great
deal of red wine, but happily it was all of the same
kind. An orchestra was stationed outside the door of
the long hut, and in relays the kola ^as danced for
hours on end. One could not help but admire these
men tremendously, with their courageous acceptance
of exile from their devastated country. They heard
from their families only at the rarest intervals, through
Switzerland. Most of them had been fighting for six
years. And yet there was no suggestion that they
would not go on fighting indefinitely until the victory
was won. One felt how much British moral supj)ort
really meant to these hardy fighters, and what their
deception and discouragement would have been had
our troops ever been taken away. The British and
Serbian armies never really fought side by side; that
is, their respective fronts never touched, the French
always being between. But we had a number of Motor
Transport Companies with the Serbian armies ; in fact,



we did practically all their mechanical traction, and
these hard-working British troops created a splendid
impression. The great victory' of the Serbs when, in
the autumn, they captured the 8,000 feet summit of
Kaijmacklan, would not have been possible without the
devoted work of some of our Ford units, which kept
supplies and ammunition going up a dreadful moun-
tain road which may fairly be described as a precipice.

Take him for all in all, the Serb is indeed a man.
I suppose that under his own conditions of Balkan
warfare you could not possibly find better fighting
material in the world, and we came to the conclusion
that all round he is easily the best soldier in the Bal-
kans. He is strong and hardy, courageous, great on
bayonet work, and is not too much shaken, as so many
otherwise courageous people are, by artillery. The
Serbs are, of course, almost entirely peasants, and
Serbia, being in normal times a great pig and chicken
country, they are always very well fed. The Greek
soldier can get along on much scantier rations than
the Serb.

How much Serbs are a peasant race I realised one
day up at Tresina, the Headquarters of the 2nd Serbian
Army. As I was walking through the village with
some Serbian officers one of them pointed to a thick-
set old soldier who was standing some little distance
from us, his hands folded behind him, in an attitude
of deep contemplation. " Do you know who that is ? "
said the officer. Nattirally I replied that I was not
acquainted with many Serbian soldiers. The officer

" That is Voivode (Marshal) Stepan Stepanovitch,"
he said. " He always dresses like a simple soldier."

I expressed a desire to meet him, but was gently
dissuaded. The Voivode, it appeared, only spoke Ser-



bian, was something of a recluse, loved to walk by
liimself in contemplation, and was not given to con-
versation with anybody. He was the son of a peasant,
and did not bother to look like anything else. Marshal
Misitch, the Commander of the 1st Army, was a leader
of another type, and you felt when near him that you
were in the presence of a great soldier. He is quite
an unassuming man — but he threw the Austrian army
twice out of his country, and if Serbia's enemies had
been limited to the Dual Monarchy there would have
been no question of an Albanian retreat. General
Vasitch, Commander of the Third Army, was another
very interesting personality who made astonishing pro-
gress in his study of English.

The Italians we always found very sympathetic in
spite of the difficulties of language. There is a uni-
formity about them which appeals to the English mind.
One Italian officer is very much like another, and the
same can be said of the men. They had other points
in common with us, being extremely neat and orderly
and great builders of roads. Their famous road to
Santi Quaranta vied with the Seres Road in construc-
tion, although it did not have to bear anything like
so much traffic. The Italians, when they first came.
had the distinction of being under the command of
perhaps the tallest and biggest soldier in the Balkans
— General Petitti di Roreto. He stands six feet four
or so, and is of very big build. I remember the sensa-
tion when he came walking up the Place de la Liberte
when the Italians first landed. The rolling hand-clap-
ping which had been proceeding as the Italians
passed, swelled into a veritable tornado as their im-
mense General appeared. The lot of the Italians in
the campaign was similar to that of the rest — long
periods of inaction, save for hard digging, varied by



spells of fierce fighting against impregnable positions.

The Greeks, of course, began their relations with us
under a great handicap. Although Venizelos had in-
vited us to Salonica, the Greeks we found at Salonica
were largely hostile. Things went from bad to worse,
and the name of Greece was at zero when Venizelos
came to Salonica. He it was who lifted Greece to her
feet again in the eyes of the Free Nations, and the
bravery of the Army later on did a good deal more.
But we will deal at greater length with this point in
a later chapter.

Three years fairly close acquaintance with the Bal-
kans and its muddle of problems and races have en-
abled me to make up my mind on one point only — and
that is, that it is unwise for European outsiders to
take to their bosoms any one Balkan country in par-
ticular. The Serbs have behaved magnificently in the
war, and all their friends hope they will have their full
reward. But it would be a great mistake on our part
tio make a pet of the Serbs because of this. What we
of the outside nations want is the detached point of
view; only in this way will it be possible to see the
eternal Balkan problem in it's proper perspective, and
enable some measure of equity to be meted out to the
various Balkan peoples. The great trouble is that the
British Balkan " expert '* is nearly always violently
prejudiced in favour of one particular country. Mr.
This dreams of nothing but Greece ; the Brothers That
beat the big drum of Bulgaria. (We saw during the
war what sort of mischief this sort of thing can cause.)
It should be our mission to try and hold the balance,
and to correct, as far as possible, distorted local views.*

* But all the same one must protest against a letter which T saw
published in a London newspaper of November, 1918, which bade
us, now that we had knocked him out of the war, to hasten to love



Only an hour before writing this, I was talking to a
Greek, a bank manager and a very pleasant man. But,
politics cropping up, he led me before a map on his
office wall, and with terrific heat explained what
Greece, in bare justice, must have. There was no
stopping him. " If they all went on like you at the
Peace Conference," I said, "there would be another
war at once." This irritated him. " It is your role,"
he said, " to explain to the world what Greece should
have." " Devil a bit," I replied, in polite French. To
repeat, I am convinced that the moment a man takes
one Balkan nation specially under his wing, his opinion
on Balkan questions becomes for ever useless.

the Bulgar. " Our men tell us," the letter said, " that the Bulgar
was a plucky fellow and a clean fighter. It will be our own fault
if we fail in getting into touch with him. It behoves us to make a
good impression, and much depends on our first appointments."
Whatever the last phrase may mean, this is damnable. The letter
went on to talk of the good treatment of our prisoners in Bulgaria.
iJn fortunately first impressions of some observers as telegraphed
from that country gave a very erroneous idea of how the Bulgar
had behaved. He treated our men most horribly and he treated the
poor Serbs five times worse. They wallowed in filth, neglect and
brutality. The fact is that there is a strain of very real savagery
running throughout the Balkans and the Bulgar has an extra dose
of it. At a Peace Conference he will demand everything in the
name of civilization. Confronted with his atrocious treatment of
prisoners of war, he will say, " Well, after all, you know, our own
soldiers are treated much like that at any time." The Turk does
exactly the same ; parades his veneer when in contact with civilized
people, and winks at any atrocity that may be going on in the
interior. They both try to get the best of both worlds. It is true
that our soldiers of the B.S.F., with their usual " sportsmanship " —
that baffling quality which no other country quite understands —
made the very best of " Johnny Bulgar " in every way, and were
always ready to hail any good point they found in him as opponent,
whether of courage or anything else. But our men who came troop-
ing down after the armistice from the Bulgarian prisoner of war
cr.mps were very much cured of any pleasant feeling they might have
had that the Bulgars, on the whole, were good fellows. They at
least would not rush " to make a good impression " — unless it were
with a Mills grenade. Do not let us, for goodness sake, have any
illusions about people who love to hang villagers in batches, and then
take photographs of them. The Bulgar loved this sort of thing.
If he is to he accepted as a savage — all right. But in that case don't
let us have him masquerading in a frock ooat.



Nor must we make the mistake of thinking that on
the few years of modern civilization which the various
Balkan nations have behind them, too great an edifice
can immediately be erected. It will need patience and
education and a few more years of the enjoyment of
real freedom before they can do much. Each Balkan
nation has its virtues, and its faults. Each nation has
its statesmen — but none has any great quantity. We
may draw a parable from our own hard experience in
Macedonia. When the Seres Road was first taken in
hand to permit of heavy traffic being run on it we
laid down a surface which at first sight looked quite
good and solid. But the rains came, and in less than
no time our pleasant surface of good road was pushed
down into the bottomless mud of Macedonia. We had
to take the road severely in hand again, put in a solid
foundation, build it up gradually and keep on building
it up all the time — and to make it equal to its task
it needed hard, conscientious and unremitting labour.
Something of the same kind must be done to introduce
into the Balkans a civilization which is likely to endure.
Anything that is scamped will sink down into the mud
again. There are many attractive qualities among the
Balkan nations. What they lack most of all is
character, and it cannot be built up in a few years.

This brings me back to my favourit-e among the
Allies — the British. I am not ashamed to say that
most, though not all, of what I have seen in the war
has confirmed me in ancient prejudices. I have been
throughout the war an ardent singer of our own praises.
There has been need of it, because so few other people
have done it. The other nations have taken us at our
own valuation, and I am convinced that during long
periods this was a source of mifitlary weakness, because
other nations thought, naturally, that we were doing



rather less than we said we were doing, and concluded,
therefore, that it must be mighty Uttle. I am con-
vinced that we are the finest thing turned out since the
Romans, and that our administration everywhere we
go shows it. (It sounds a Uttle Hunnish tliis, but I am
not sure that a two-per-cent. dash of Hun spirit
wouldn't sometimes be a good thing for us — particu-
larly in dealing with the Huns.) But we will talk a
little more about ourselves in the next chapter.



The Army from Without.

The exemplary conduct of the British soldier was the
chief theme in the comment of most observers of us
when in the Balkans. I don't for a moment pretend
that we had not " bad hats " amongst us. Most com-
manding officers could enlighten one on that point.
But there was something about the general conduct and
attitude of our men which inspired confidence wherever
they went. If Tommy were about, then the people
whom he was near felt that everything was all right.
What did M. Repoules say? — "The British are prac-
tically worshipped throughout the whole of Macedonia.
.... What is the power behind the goodness of
character ? And how is it gained ? By nature ? No !
By bearing, education and will. Their intentions are
always straight, their thoughts innocent, and they
never misuse their power. . . . Not even the most ill-
educated Englishman, even when intoxicated, molests
anyone, hurts anyone, hurts an animal, touches a fruit
tree, or displays any vicious tendency. Heredity has
not left in the British character a trace of brutality or

I think it is mostly true, and the heart of the whole
tribute is, " They never misuse their power." It never
occurs to the British soldier that because he is in uni-
form, occupying somebody else's country, he has a
right to do things which he would not dare to do in
his own. He is just as good-humoured to the Balkan



peasant woman as he would be to one of the " lydies "
who sell flowers on the fountain in Piccadilly Circus.
He doesn't think that because he, a foreign soldier,
sees a Balkan chicken he has a mandate to " pinch "
it. It simply doesn't occur to him to play the con-
quering warrior game. He has a phrase of his own
which shows this. He speaks of himself as " the brutal
and licentious soldiery," and we all know that once
Tommy has made a joke of a thing he has absolutely
robbed it of its sting. The same British Colonel whom
I have already once quoted (and who, by the way, was a
markedly cynical, man-of-the-world type) told me that
in several years experience with his Division he had not
known a single case of assault on women, and had any
such occurred the case must have come through his
hands. And yet we employed a great deal of female
labour in road-making, with men of ours constantly in
charge of them. *' Of course. . . ." the Colonel added
with a twinkle. He would, being the cynic he is. But
his testimony remains, and is all the more valuable as
coming from one who was in no way swayed by senti-
mentality, and who had shed all his illusions long
before he came to Macedonia. Tommy was a great
civilising force in Macedonia. Even the most mulish
of the peasants — and they can be very mulish — began
to realise that something new was abroad : that soldiers
could be up and down the roads and on the side tracks
everywhere and that nobody's head was broken, no
woman was carried off, and no chickens or eggs were
looted. In many places far off the beaten tracks the
peasants were encouraged to bring their produce from
miles round and hold a market. Here Tommy bar-
gained — " Hey, Johnny, how much them eggs. . . .
Eggs, uffs. Idey, how much?" It was not long, of
course, before the Balkan peasant having lost all fear

145 L


of our soldiers began to exploit them. The primitive
mind rebounds quickly from fear to profit. . . . How
long the traces of civilization we left will remain, or
whether or not they will be the real beginning of a
permanently better order of affairs in Macedonia, de-
pends on many things.

The writer occupied during tlie best part of three
years the rather singular position of being of an Army
and yet not in it, and so while knowing something of its
inside workings, can yet look on it from an outside
point of view. And my final impression of the British
Army is one of great efficiency, even though in many
instances we spent more money to do a thing than we
need have done, and in others had more men — or offi-
cers — to do a job than we need have had. But there
is no doubt about it that the Army gets things done,
once it thinks of doing them. We heard, during the
war, a great deal about the circumlocution of the Army,
and how a request or an order or a suggestion travels
round and round from office to office until it dies of
giddiness. No doubt tliere is a great deal of that, but
though " the system " may have its faults, I think it
gets there in the end. I used to be fascinated by the
way in which, if I asked for a thing, it travelled round
its appointed circle inevitably as fate and came back —
generally granted. In many ways the Army is extra-
ordinarily business-like. I was always impressed by
the desks in the Army offices ; severely neat ; nothing
out of place ; all sorts of little gadgets for keeping
straying pencils or pens in their places ; a nice orderly
row of wooden receptacles marked, "In," " Provi-
sional," " Out," and so on. They were hke the
sanitary arrangements in all the camps ; amazingly
clean, severe and business-like. There ought to be a
special medal struck for the men of the Sanitary Sec-



tions, and their yellow armlet should be regarded as a
badge of honour. Here is one point at least in which
the war must have taught invaluable lessons to hun-
dreds of thousands of men. M. Repoules might have
said that next to the godliness of tlie British soldier
comes his cleanliness.

As a rule, I found the Army extraordinarily prompt

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 11 of 23)