H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

. (page 12 of 23)
Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 12 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in dealing with any matter put before them. I never
felt this so much as in the case of a pair of old boots.
I had sent these to the Officers' (Ordnance) Clothing
Store, where boots were tiaken in to be repaired. A
few days later there was a ring on the telephone : —

" That you. . . . ? Just had a report in about a pair
of boots of yours sent in for repair on the 17th. Report
says : ' Reference, etc., etc., etc., the welt on these
boots is entirely gone, and to be repaired properly they
will need re-welting. Cost of this will be fourteen
shillings. Please enquire whether sender will be willing
to pay this amount.' Well now, what about it? Do
you think it is worth your while to have these boots
re-welted ? Of course, old boots are always better to
wear than new."

'• I quite agree with you. They're a very comfort-
able pair. I'll pay the fourteen shillings cheerfully."

" Right. That's all I wanted to know. I'll send it
through. . . . Oh, four or five days. Cheero."

Now if anybody had bothered me about a pair of
old boots ! But it was this officer's job to deal ^with
old boots, among many other things, and he treated the
matter just as he would if he had suddenly been ordered
to staTt a potato farm, or take a trip round Macedonia
and see what were the prospects of the hay crop.

It was my fortune to have a good deal to do with
Staff officers. In the lighter literature of the war one
reads a great deal about " a gilded member of the Staff



appeared," or, " Of course, if you're on the Staff," or,
" I met a Staff officer the other day." I saw lots of
St^ff officers nearly every day ; talked with them,
smoked with them, even joked with them. Like the
schoolmarm of whom the little girl said in an awe-
struck whisper, " Look, Mother, there's Teacher
smiling," Staff officers are really quite human. After
prolonged study of them I am convinced that the old,
authentic regular Staff officer is in many ways one of
the best types furned out by Dame Nature. Take him
for all in all, the Englishman of a certain class cannot
be beaten. But with all his qualities I think our regular
Staff officer, P.S.C., or otherwise, has often one great
lack — he is not in touch sufficiently with general, ordin-
ary, contemporary life. To this it may be replied that
a military expert has only need tb know about military
affairs. But the Great War showed how elastic and
wide military affairs can be. One often felt that a Staff
officer might be excellent at his job ; he was probably
also a first-class man at sport, and might know a great
deal about music, literature or anything else. But he
had never seen enough of existence as the average
man knows it, and remained a little aloof from the
world's ordinary affairs. In short, he was a little too
stiff and elevated in his attitude to life — ordinary life,
which does not include merely the best things which
merely the best people engage in. I tJiink that the
ideal training for a Staff officer should give him a year's
exfverience of life in more varied forms ; send him, say,
to knock romid New York for a year so that he could
learn to say " See here, now " without blushing; send
him for a year to live in certain places in Yorkshire
and Lancashire, so that he could appreciate that this
great Empire of ours contains such things as factory
operatives ; or even give him a year's general experience



in Fleet Street. Then, I think we could turn out the
perfect man ; the Regular Staff Officer who has rubbed
shoulders with the real world and met people who when
you use the word "polo" think of a football being
thrown about in a swimming bath. I say this with all
the more conviction because several such men exist,
and I have met them. I know one who combined the
traditions of a good name, and years spent in a Lancer
Regiment, with a considerable experience in a commer-
cial branch of life in which he had to compete for his
living. The result was marvellous and, applied to his
particular job, did quite a lot of good to the B.S.F.
He looked through an angle about four times wider
than he would have done without his experience of
ordinary "common or garden" life. Napoleon inten-
ded to be rude when he called us a nation of shop-
keepers, but if it helped us in beating the Boche a
little quicker "next time," I should be quite happy to
see a Passed Staff College man keeping a tobacco stall
for a Uttle while. His democratic experience behind
the counter would be an invaluable training, giving him
experience in dealing with all possible types of men,
from shag to Corona-Coronas.

Having thrown so many bouquets at the Staff Officer
one must certainly say something about the Regimen-
tal Officer who came down to town on his infrequent
shopping excursions and who, in the words of "The
Song of Tiadatha " : —

" In his hob-nailed boots he slithered
Up and down Rue Venizelos."

The plain, unvarnished Regimental Officer was a
factor who was very largely responsible in keeping our
Macedonian show together, through sickness and long
discouTagement. I got to know some hundreds of
them personally, and some scores of them very well



indeed. They were always the same ; unfailingly cheer-
ful and making a joke of the things that irked most.
When I say "unfailingly cheerful," I don't mean that
they thought the war a pleasant occupation. They
hated it from the soles of their boots upwards, and
sometimes asked pathetically, "How long do you think
it will last ? . . . Another two YEARS ! For God's sake,
don't say that!" It was a cri du coeur, all right.
They loathed Macedonia, and had every reason to.
The interminable trenches, with only an occasional
spell out of the line — further back somewhere on yet
another liillside ; the same old Bulgar mountains
always looking down wherever they were; perhaps a
course of machine-guns or trench-mortars as a doubt-
ful break in the monotony ; a spell down at a Base
hospital with a "go" of malaria or a fragment of Bul-
gar shell received in a "stunt," with — ^the best thing of
all — a stay at the pleasant Officers' Convalescent Home
up at Hortiach to follow ; and then back again up the
line on the same old round. There was a good deal
more fighting on the Balkan front than the people at
home were aware of, and some sectors of trenches,
under very frequent artillery fire, which were as warm
as anything in France. One never knew, as they went
back again, whether they would turn up once more for
another dinner at the White Tower or the Club. One
always had a keen personal interest to know what bat-
talions had been engaged. . But if it was not one, it was
another, and quite a niunber of cheery faces which one
hoped to see in after years are now missing for ever.
Bismarck said that the Balkans were not worth the
bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier. But a good
many very fine Britons are lying tliere.

And the Men ? For two years and more Salonica
saw next to nothing of our soldiers of the front line.



Courtesans and contractors had made their fortunes ;
Constantine had played his long trick and lost ;
Britain had changed from a. land where no man had
to be a soldier, into a land where men of fifty were
forced to be soldiers, and still the troops who moved up-
country in 1916 had not paid a visit to Salonica, unless
it were in an ambulance. It was only at the beginning
of 1918 that it was found practicable to bring parties
of these men down to the Base for a sort of semi-leave,
and I remember seeing the first groups of them walking
along our main streets. There was not much to boast
of, but there were trams and pavements and real
houses, and they were looking round about them with
all the naive wonder of a yokel on his first visit to
London. Think of that, O ye Comedians who sang,
"If you want a holiday go to Salonica," or whatever
the silly thing was. Some of our men certainly went
to Salonica for a holiday, but it was after sticking it
for two and a half years or more up in the wilderness.

And how they chafed at the misconception and lack
of recognition at home ! People simply do not under-
stand how this rankled and ate into them. A says care-
lessly an unkind thing of B. The thing probably
passes out of ^'s mind immediately, and is for ever
forgotten. But if by chance B has happened to over-
hear it — well, he never forgets. It was exactly the
same with tiie unthinking people — comedians and
others — who said, or wrote, ill-natured things of the
Salonica Army. With the people at home it was merely
a passing reference, light as air, fleeting as thought.
There were so many other and more interesting things
to think about. But the men out in Macedonia thought
over these things, brooded over them, discussed them
rancorously in " bivvy " or trench. What was the
good of passing years in the Balkans for fat-minded



people at home who didn't care a damn ! ; who thought
they were having a "good time in Salonica" ? Oh,
but there was some language used about the people at

And this is, perhaps, the place to say that the reader
of these pages who does not happen to know Macedonia
may have gathered the impression that it is a moder-
ately pleasant place to live in. There is quite a lot of
talk in them of striking scenery, of Army Theatres,
cheery mess rooms, and so on. But if an idea has been
given that campaigning in the Balkans has anything
pleasant about it for the average man in the ranks, that
idea should be abandoned. Unless you have lived the
life of "bivvies"; unless you have lived for three years
in all weathers without ever a proper roof to your head,
and, as a rule, in considerable discomfort; unless you
have splashed about for weeks on end in mud and sleet,
or lived on the baked, scorched earth through an in-
terminable six-months summer, with chlorinated water
as your only drink — well, if you have not lived this life
you cannot hope to describe it. And the writer was
lucky enough not to have been living that particular
life, and so has perhaps not brought it home sufficiently
to the reader. But the men lived it, and they know,
and no doubt some day some of them will adequately
describe it. Why, it was a red-letter day for the men
up-country if they tasted beer — and even then it was
only a thin Salonica brew. "What of that," the reader
may say. " A man can go without beer."
But the Salonica campaign taught me all the
good and comfort that can reside for very
many men in a simple pot of beer. It is not a
mere drink, to be poured down a man's throat just to
"wet his whistle." The drinking of beer is a rittial
that enshrines most that he holds dear, that brings



him nearer to home and all it means to him ; that con-
jures up all the scenes which were good or familiar to
him in the days before war claimed him. It means to
him what cut glass and finger bowls mean to some
other people. A single pot of beer can mean all the
difference between final "fed-upness" and a cheerful
view of campaigning. We are sympathetic to the
French soldier's love of his thin red wine. Let us then
be sympathetic to the British soldier's love for his
ration of beer — when good fortune brought it. The
two things are exactly parallel. Of course, in the New
Armies there was a very large proportion of men who
were entirely indifferent to the subtleties which may
be contained in a beer mug. But if they didn't want
their own pot of beer there was no service they could
not readily get in exchange for it.

After the victorious offensive in 1918, the Bishop of
London, who was out yLsiting the Balkan Army, wrote
a letter to the Times which, in the history of Salonica,
may well rank with St. Paul's epistles to the Thessa-
lonians. In it he asked eloquently for fairness to a
gallant force, and in commenting on the letter, the
Times put its finger right on the spot. "Few of us at
home," it said, "have any conception how much our
praise, and when necessar>' our criticism, if only it is
sympathetic, means for the Armies at the front — how
much it sustains them in their trials and spurs them
to fresh efforts to victory. . . These men in our Eastern
Armies have had the dust and toil, without the laurel,
of the race to Victory."

As a matter of fact, the British troops in the Balkans
were particularly good men. The four Divisions
mainly concerned in the campaign were all of splendid
quality. One might even call it a picked Army. Aver-
age troops could certainly not have stuck the long



campaign, and rallied so magnificently for the final
desperate enterprise, as General Milne describes in his
1919 despatch. But sucJi was the fatality which pur-
sued our Salonica Army that even when the great
break-through occurred their names hardly figured in
the general communique, which was issued from the
French command, and the people at home knew that
there had been a great Balkan victory without knowing
that our men had played a vital part in winning it.

And while we are on this subject it will be as well to
give part of an interview which a French correspon-
dent, M. Gaston Richard, had with one of the leading
French commanders in the Balkans, and which was
published in the Petit Parisien. I took it from a Con-
stantinople paper which had copied it.

"The Allied Armies were marvellously keyed up, and
their high moral certainly dominated that of the Bul-
gars. No Army endeavoured to act alone, and this
harmony of forces counted for a great deal in the

"Let us take for example the work of the Anglo-
Greek Army which operated on a front where the enemy
was constantly expecting to be attacked, and where
he had in consequence multiplied his defences, brought
up great reserves, and placed in position an enormous
quantity of artillery. Beliind this thick curtain of
defences, and in view of an offensive on their own
part, the enemy had gathered formidable reserves of
material. The mission of the Anglo-Greek Army was to
pin the enemy to the ground and to oblige him to em-
ploy his reserves in order to prevent him sending them
to points menaced elsewhere. This role it filled mar-
vellously, and if you had been able to be present at
all that it accomplished, you would have been



"And when later, the Bulgars evacuated the Doiran
front in order to fly towards Sfrumitza, the Anglo-
Greek Army, in pressing the pursuit with energy, pre-
vented any re-grouping of divisions and contributed
to change the enemy refreat into an irremediable rout.
This must be said for the honour of truth."

We ask for no more definite tribute as to the part
of the B.S.F. in the great victory which was the real
and authentic beginning of the end. "We knocked the
props one by one from under him," said Mr. Lloyd
George. Doiran was the first prop.

In Salonica we had, at one time and another, yery
many interesting personalities. There was the Crown
Prince of Serbia, rather austere of countenance, who
was not very often seen about. He was often up at
the Serbian front, but when in Salonica kept very
much to his residence and his work. One of the few
occasions on which I remember seeing him abroad was
on H.M.S. "St. GeoTge," the Depot ship, which was
one of Salonica 's greatest institutions, on the occasion
of St. George's Day. Then we had M. Venizelos, who
was with us for a long while, and occasionally M. Pas-
itch, Serbia's veteran statesman. Essad Pasha,
Albania's Chieftain, lived in a large house in the
fashionable end of the town ; and during the long period
when he reigned supreme. General Sarrail, Commander-
in-Chief of the Allied Armies, was often to be seen
about. Tall, handsome, white-haired and energetic.
General Sarrail graced most functions with his presence.
He loved to see and be seen, and had the gift for mixing
with men of all kinds. And at various times we had
many other striking personalities with us.

But there was one whose presence also meant a great
deal in Salonica, who was practically unknown to the



Salonica public. I refer to General Sir George Milne,
the British Army Commander. The two Generals were
exfraordinarily contrasted, and one avoided publicity
as much as the other appreciated it. General Milne
spent a very large part of his time up-country. During
three years his journeys by motor car averaged 75 miles
a day, excluding great distances from point to point
on horseback. One may say of our General that he was
largely typical of his Army. Out of the limelight, say-
ing little, doing much — this may stand fairly as the
motto of the British Salonica Forces.



The Conversion of Greece.

Few chapters of the Great War are more interesting
and more strange than the conversion of Greece, by
which gradually she ceased to be an active enemy
under King Constantine, passed through a long and
difficult period under Venizelos after the expulsion of
the false monarch, and finally emerged as one of the
Allies, sending her Divisions into the line of battle
and taking a gallant part in the final offensive, which
brought us to victory. All nations are prone to think
very well of their own virtues and some of the Greeks
flatter themselves that it was their help, brought into
the Balkan Theatre at a vital time, which won the
war. We will let them argue this point out with some
Americans. What is certain is that the conversion of
the Greek Army from a source of danger at one of our
weakest' points to a powerful Ally — from a Balkan
point of view — fighting for us in its own territory, com-
pletely changed the aspect of things in the Balkans and
gave us the factor which made a renewed offensive on
the Balkan front possible.

And what a chapter it was of intrigue and lying and
falseness ! When the full story of what happened in
Athens is told, it will prove to be the most amazing
jumble of espionage and counter-espionage of the whole
war. It was mediaeval,, cloak and dagger work, with
spies, mistresses, courtesans, politicians and statesmen
all playing their part ; with the sinister serio-comic



figures of Baron Schenk, of Germany — with his miUions
for propaganda and bribes — and King Constantine (also
of Germany) overhanging all. A point that was not
quite sufficiently appreciated in those days was that
Constantme was first of all a German Field Marshal,
and that being King of Greece was, in his mind, a very
secondary affair. From his point of view, with his
German military training, the one was an infinitely
greater honour than the other. He was just as keen
on seeing the "field-greys" sweep conquering through
the world as was the Kaiser himself. He was in addi-
tion a rather stupid and very stubborn man, very much
under the influence of his German wife, the Kaiser's
sister, and finally he was frantically jealous of Venize-
los and his influence with the country.

In those most difficult days of 1916, no man would
seem ever to have had such an impossible task ahead
of him as had Venizelos. He might, by some almost
Divine inspiration, believe in the final success of the
Allies, but what was there to make the average Greek
feel it? The forces of snobbery were as powerful in
Athens as anywhere else. The King was the King :
he was closely allied to the great potentate who seemed
to have the fate of the world in his hand, and to prac-
tically every other royal house as well. The German
arms seemed to many people to be invincible. It was
quite a big thing for Athenians to follow Venizelos into
exile in Macedonia, leaving all that the King and his
Court and the pro-German capital meant behind them,
and rally round the standard of revolt in Macedonia.
Of course it had been done many times before in his-
tory, and no doubt will be done again. And there is
one p>oint about the Macedonian Revolution, which
Venizelos came up to Salonica to lead, which marks it
out from most others. It was only made possible by



the presence of the Allies in Greece, and could not have
taken place without them. The movement could de-
clare itself with safety in Salonica, because the presence
of the Allies made it impossible for Constantine's arm
to reach it's followers. The Allies did not at first en-
courage the revolution, because Greece was still nomin-
ally a neutral country. But anybody who took part
in initiating the movement, or who came there to join
it, was sure of a safe asylum. Venizelos himself would
have been quite powerless without this great factor.
And there were many Greeks who were quick to see that
it had become a "heads I win, tails you lose," sort of
situation. If Germany won the war, then Constantine
would secure all he wanted from his brother-in-law.
And if the Allies won, they would not be able to forget
Venizelos and his loyalty to them. The leaders of the
revolutionary movement may no doubt be acquitted of
the idea of thinking on these lines, but this asi>ect of the
situation certainly appealed to many people.

As has already been made plain, when the Allies
landed in Salonica they found themselves in the toils
of an extraordinary web of hostile influence which ham-
pered their movements in every direction. Everything
we did was known to the Greeks ; their Army surroim-
ded us and could at any moment have cut the railways
and, during the retreat, left the Franco-British an easy
prey to the Bulgars; and Salonica positively swarmed
with German agents paid by Baron Schenk from Athens.
And the situation was enormously complicated by the
fact that Greece was not a declared enemy, but a covert
one ; and that Constantine, aided by his shifty crew
of Scouloudis, Lambros, Dousmanis and Co., knew
exactly how to play fast and loose with the Chancel-
leries of the Allies. The Arm_y Commanders at Salonica
had not a free hand in dealing with the menace which



encompassed them. They were there to be "shot at,"
but, for a long time, could not reply. Constantine
thought he had us in a net, and that sooner or later
he would be able to hand us over en bloc to his friends
the enemy. Even as far as he went he was one of the
most successful of Prussia's Field Marshals, but what
he accomplished was nothing to what he plotted.

However, General Sarrail was not the man to stand
too much nonsense, and following a German air raid
on the town on December 30th, 1915, which amounted
to a declaration by the enemy that Salonica was no
longer neutral territory, he immediately cleared out all
the enemy Consulates — German, Austrian, Bulgarian,
and Turkish, taking all their archives and packing all
the personnel off by sea. All these Consulates were
so many organised centres of espionage. In the lull
which followed the active military operations of the
expedition to try and help Serbia, there was no lack of
incident. German Zeppelins and aeroplanes bombed
the town, and on the night of May 4-5, 1916, a Zeppelin
was brought down, without having dropped a bomb,
by the guns of the Fleet and the Allied anti-aircraft
guns, falling in the Vardar marshes. It was generally
believed that the honour fell to H.M.S. Agamemnon,
but the point always rested in dispute. A little before
this, the Greek fort of Kara-Bouroun, which dominated
the entrance to the Gulf, was captured by a happy
operation which was so well and suddenly carried out
as to leave Constantine's men nothing to do but gasp.
All the time the organisation of the "Birdcage" was
going on feverishly, and the troops which came out
expecting to fight almost as they landed, found instead
that they had many weeks of hard digging ahead of
them. The whole of the Greek frontier had become
very debateable ground, which the Bulgars might cross



at any time. The Allies hastened to take up various
strategical points, from Fiorina on the west to the
Struma on the east; here and there our cavalry was
in touch with the enemy ; vital railway bridges were
blown up. This was more than justified by events
soon to follow. At the end of May, Constantine's party
accomplished its greatest treachery up to date. The
forts and passes barring his country from the Bulgar —
"the beasts with human faces," as Constantine had
called them in the days of 1912-13, when he was flat-
tered by the title of "The Bulgarslayer" — were given
up, and the Greek Army (with the exception of several

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 12 of 23)