H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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provided with lighter lorries — say like the Italian one-
ton motor vans. But that is another story, and does
not in any way concern the B.S.F.

The road up to Monastir did not at first much con-
cern us. It was chiefly an affair for the French, and
also that region was served by the railway. There was



also a railway to Doiran, in which direction ran the
Naresh road. But there was no railway up to the
Struma Front, and there we had an Army Corps,
consisting varyingly of two or three Divisions. The
laws of modern war say that an Army Corps must be
backed up by a line of railway. But on the Struma
Sector we had three Divisions fifty miles from their
base, and one very bad road with which to supply them.
The troops had to be sent up-country, whatever else
happened. We then had to improvise the means to
keep them supplied in food, ammunition and the
thousand and one things of which an army of to-day
has need.

The reader will have noticed that the Seres Road
occurs as a sort of chorus, a Greek Chorus if you like,
in this book. It is always popping in, like King Charles'
head. And this is as it should be. The Seres Road
largely dominated the Balkan Campaign. It repre-
sented only a fraction of our difficulties and our road-
making, but it stood for so much in the general scheme
of things. The British can no more think of Macedonia
without the Seres Road than the country tl-ipper can
think of London without Nelson's column. The two
go together — and incidentally, the making of the road
was one of the finest pieces of work accomplished by
any British Army in the war.

In the later summer of 1916 we began to take the
road in hand. Previous to this there had been a colos-
sal amount of work within the region of the "Bird-
cage." Heavens, but how our poor infantrjnnen had
to dig in Macedonia ! Their first task was to construct
all the defences and trenches which ran along the
edge of the steep line of hills covering the town, and
the 10th (Irish) Division particularly had some very
heavy strategic road-making to do on the steep slopes









































of Mount Hortiach (nearly 4,000 feet high) which, in
case of an attack to drive us into the sea, would have
been the chief bastion of our defence. All this, in a
sense, went to nought once we had moved up-country
to face the enemy on the immensely stronger line he
had prepared up there. We had to start road-making
then with a will, to ensure a life-line for the troops on
the new front. The infantry could not be employed
on this work. They had their own work to do in dig-
ging more trenches where they were. Native labourers
were employed — in itself a big organisation — and we
began on the task of converting the seventy kilometres
of semi-track that ran up and down the steep hills as
far as the edge of the Struma Valley, into a road that
would bear the weight we wanted to put on it.

With great labour the work was done as well as
circumstances would allow, and for months — at the
cost of unremitting attention and patching — served its
purpose. We were not to foresee at that time that we
should need the road for three long years, and that the
strain on it would become heavier and heavier. All
seemed fairly well, although such an imperfect line of
communication was naturally always a source of great
concern to those responsible. And then came the
tragedy. The winter of 1916 arrived, and with it very
heavy rains. The road under the terrific pressure and
weight we were compelled to put on it went to pieces.
The greatest trouble occurred on the high stretch of
road from Lahana onwards, to the summit of the hills
on the Struma Valley, and particularly from there down
the steep, giddy descent that drops 1800 feet down on
to the plain. The scenes that happened there for
weeks on end in the bad weather can only be faintly
conveyed in print. They must have been seen to be
believed. The road simply disappeared. It became a

177 N


giant's staircase of mud slides. It was, in parts, like
the bed of a mountain torrent, and when the heavy
rains were falling the torrent itself was there, all com-
plete. What had been a firm, neat road running down
a mountain side, curving in and about in great loops,
and with nicely constructed drainage ditches on each
side, became merely a disfiguration on the face of
Nature. It was a mud hole, twenty miles long, with
long stretches of it tipped to such alarming angles that
even the mud ran out. The lorries which thudded and
churned their adventurous way thirty-five miles up
from Salonica had to give up the struggle a little way
beyond Lahana. They stuck, struggled forward, stuck
again, swayed this way and that, and sank to their
final plunge, lying at an angle and looking in their
huge helplessness rather like an elephant brought down
on its knees by the hunter. For weeks on end the M.T.
drivers were out from three in the morning, at which
time the convoys started, until ten o'clock or later at
night. Chilled through and through with the cold,
crushed with fatigue, they would have to be at the
wheel again after four hours' sleep. Some of them
drove half asleep, or in a sort of drunkenness of fatigue.
But there was nothing else to be done. The three
Divisions on the Struma had to be fed and supplied,
and this was the only possible way to get at them.
When the lorries came to their final morass the
mule tl-ansport took on. Imagine the scene with the
bottom of the road fallen out, the rain dropping in
torrents, and the long trains of limbers struggling
forward. Imagine the tugging and shoving, the
shouts and bad language and despair, with lim-
bers sunk over their axles and the mules in the
liquid mud to their bellies. There were gangs of sol-
diers and labourers shovelling out mud and water, try-



ing to level up what would not be levelled, and make a
passage for the badly-needed rations and supplies. For
days and weeks on end the rain came down on sodden,
hungry and tired officers and men, and on dejected
mules, whose eloquent ears spoke of their own misery.
Lucky for us that horse-mastership is a cult in the
British Army and that the big, bony animals from the
Argentine were kept in a condition which enabled them
to do their arduous work. A British mule made any
other mule in the Balkan Armies look a very miserable
object. And they needed all their strength and con-
dition for the interminable, sliding descent down to the
plain ; with the limber bucking and kicking high in the
air behind them as it fell into one hole and was tugged
out of another.

All this was not to be endured. In fact, it was im-
possible to fight a war under such conditions. It was
decided to take the Seres Road thoroughly in hand and
mould it to our will. In this we were embarking on a
very big task. It meant bringing dozens of steam-
rollers from England, many sets of stone-crushing
machinery, and innumerable other things. The whole
of the country through which the road ran was carefully
prospected for hard stone, which would make good road
metal, but Macedonia's rocks do not produce Aberdeen
granite. We had to take what we could get. Quarries
were started at many points, convenient and otherwise.
Native labour — men, women and children, were en-
gaged by the thousand. R.E. Companies divided the
road, from Piccadilly Circus to Kilo 72, into sections.
Then all day long the quarries began to rumble and
erupt, and primitive native carts, drawn by sleepy oxen
or buffaloes, supplemented our own horse transport in
carting the chunks of stone to the roadside, where they
wer« piled in nice orderly stacks, ready for the hammers



of the stone-breakers. At all points one came on these,
a wide circle of women and ^irls, their heads bound up
in kerchiefs and cloths of all colours, tap-tapping away
all day long, with a few Greek overseers to look after
them and perhaps a solitary, thoughtful British corporal
in charge of the lot. With the bright sun shining on
their many-coloured garments, the women and girls
made most effective tableaux, and a group of two or
three hundred stone-breakers working on a Macedonian
road would have been well worth the attention of any
artist's brush. Hundreds and thousands of tons of pre-
pared "metal" were thus poured on to the road. On
what had been the mud slides leading down to the
plain, one saw it thus for long distances piled up two
feet high. It was crushed in, Macedonia sucked it up
greedily, and two or three days later you would see
the same stretch of road dressed with another thick
layer, which was in turn crushed in. For weeks and
months the work went on ; in fact, it was never finished.
By night acetylene flares were lighted, and the steam
rollers went on with their interminable little journeys
up and down, up and down. We had to make a Ports-
mouth road fifty miles long, and do it under active
service conditions, with the submarine doing its worst.
By the middle of 1917 the road was made and perfected,
but we could never call it finished. It had to be looked
after like an ailing infant. The heavy lorry convoys
that ground and thudded along it, up and down the
steepest gradients and in extremes of weather,
would have pulled anything to pieces except solid
granite. The suction of their tyres is enormous. We
patted the road, watered it, smoothed it and dusted
it. On certain sections horses were forbidden to go at
more than a walk. The slightest pot-hole was marked
down and instantly filled in. At every suitable spot



all along it big, neatly-painted signs, in English and
Greek, were put up bearing the legend, "All lorries,
limbers and country carts to use side-tracks in dry
weather," and other warning indications. We had made
the road at last, and did not intend to let it be whittled
away by any carelessness. When King Alexander of
Greece visited the British front early in 1918 he mar-
velled to see such a highway. On the way back he an-
nounced that he was going to drive the car himself;
he did not intend to miss such an opportunity. A
despatch rider on a motor-cycle was sent ahead to give
the word and clear the v/ay, but the young King caught
him up before long and sailed ahead on the first perfect,
first-class motoring road to be constructed anywhere
in the Near East. On the long *' stl-aight " down from
Guvesne he touched 63 miles an hour.

What was done on the Seres Road was done, in vary-
ing degrees, all over the wide area covered by our opera-
tions. In the immediate region of Salonica, other first-
class roads had to be made, notably those serving the
great hospital regions of Kalamaria and Hortiach. We
reconstructed the main Naresh road leading up to Janes,
the Corps Headquarters for the Doiran Front, and the
great task we had to undertake through the pass from
Bralo on to Itea is mentioned in a later chapter. The
number of secondary and third rate roads that had to
be constructed was legion. There were none when we
went there, and when we had finished they laced the
country in all directions. From first to last we took
over, constructed and kept in repair 430 kilometres
(270 miles) of metalled roads and made 280 kilometres
(175 miles) of secondary roads and tracks, with all the
attendant work of ditching and draining. The value of
our road-making experience was immense when the
break-through came and we had to advance over the



usual Balkan conditions of spongy tracks masquerad-
ing as roads. Our three years of hard experience in our
own territory enabled us to have the proper men and
materials on the spot almost immediately, who kept
the communications patched up so that the men going
forward could be munitioned and fed.

An immense amount of work of an analogous descrip-
tion was done in improving the port accommodation.
When we first came to Salonica our ships had to lie
off the quays for days on end because there were next
to no facilities for unloading. Of the 3,700 feet of quay
accommodation the British only had 1,300 feet allotted
to them. Munitions, until they were unloaded, might
as well still be in England. We had to build piers, con-
nect them up with railways, and improve existing
facilities in a hundred ways. Our 1,300 feet were far
less than were required for troops and hospital ships.
For everything additional to these, which means every
ton of material brought from home, we had to provide
our own resources for off-loading. For these reasons
an immense amount of construction and organisation
had to be undertaken at the port. Another difficulty
we encountered was the question of water supply, and
to make provision for our many hospitals and camps
of all kinds we had, amongst many other kinds of work
devoted to this end, to bore 70 deep artesian wells, each
of which was provided v/ith a pumping engine.

On our roads we had running over two thousand heavy
lorries, and many hundreds of motor ambulances, motor
cars, light vans and motor-cycles, not to mention the
ubiquitous mule limbers. All this enormous organisa-
tion of motor transport was the life blood of the Army.
Imagine two thousand three-ton lorries standing in a
line ; how much they represent in work to be done, not
only by them but on them. All these, and the rest of



the teeming vehicles, had to be kept in good order, and
the workshops that did the work had to be kept con-
stantly supplied with spare parts. ""Spare parts"
became one of the chief bogies. These all had to come
from England. At the Base Motor Transport Depot,
which was the cupboard for all the Army, 30,000 separ-
ate items had to be kept, and any separate item might
run into thousands. Wear and tear was enormously
high. If the submarines had a successful spell, and
stocks ran low; or if London was slow in sending out
the right supplies, then there were difficulties and
trouble. Salonica was not our base, but England.
Everything — whether spare parts or bully beef— had to
run the perilous gauntlet of the submarine. We could
buy nothing in the country, either to feed, clothe or
equip us.

In three years, then, we transformed Macedonia, and
when the time for the final offensive came, there were
no lack of communications to support the troops of the
various armies based on them. In addition to road-
making we did a great deal of railway construction,
chiefly of light Decauville lines, and communications
with Stavros and our right flank were much improved
by a Decauville line built along the Langaza Valley.
Up to 1917 the sea route to Stavros had always been
used, but the submarines began to make it too difficult.
And in 1917 we opened a standard gauge line some
fifteen miles long which, running from Salamanli on the
line up to Doiran, to the dumps at Guvesne, saved all
lorry transport over the first 25 kilometres of the Seres
Road and enabled us to have our distribution point for
motor transport by so much nearer the front line.
These are a few of the things the British did in order
to combat the great enemy Mud.

But the Malaria was even worse. Mud does not kill



or disable people, and if physical conditions are bad,
it is wonderful how much the human will can do to
overcome them. But Malaria struck our men down like
a scythe cutting grass, and there is no argument against
a state of things by which an infantryman feels seedy
in the morning and by afternoon is lying on his back in
a high delirium.

The summer of 1916, as has already been mentioned,
was particularly fierce in its heat. There is no need for
the summer to be more than usuallj"^ hot for the malaria
mosquito to do its worst, but undoubtedly this factor
contributed considerably to the wave of sickness that
passed over the Army. Under the severe conditions
imposed on them by month after month of blazing heat,
the men were used up and of low vitality. In every
battalion men went down by the hundred, and there
were several cases of one or two officers and two or
three score men only being left out of a whole battalion
up to full strength. In a fortnight the South Notts
Hussars were reduced to 45 officers and other ranks
and never went into action at all in Macedonia, though
they saw plenty later in Palestine. And one infantry
battalion was reduced to one officer and 19 men. The
difficulties of evacuating this flood of sick men, a large
proportion of whom were extremely ill and helpless as
babies, were extreme. Most of them fell ill when they
were far from convenient means of transport, and had
to be carried two at a time in cacolets on the back of a
mule, or had to be dragged along in a travois, a sort of
litter made of canvas stretched between two shafts
which trail on the ground behind a mule ; or carried
on a litter suspended between two mules. The person-
nel of the Field Ambulances were worked to death at
this difficult and exhausting work. The sudden out-
break overwhelmed the medical services, which were



not then organised up to the point of dealing with
the startling problem of a fit army suddenly turning
into a sick one. Again the Seres Road, which from
right and left on the Struma, received the main flood
of patients, was still largely in its primitive state, and
the men had very exhausting journeys down to the Base.

Down in Salonica it was a common sight in the after-
noon to see a long convoy of motor ambulances, dozens
of them in line, and each of them holding four or more
patients, passing along the main street out to the big
general hospitals grouped together at Kalamaria. As
they rolled silently along through the busy, hot streets,
one saw from behind each ambulance the feet of the
four recumbent men within. And to see the long con-
voys day after day, never failing, gave a dolorous im-
pression of the ravages caused in the Army by the bite
of the tiny creature with the spotted wings known as
the anopheles mosquito ; an impression of strong men
falling right and left as if sttuck by a plague — which
in a sense is what it was.

In that summer we had 11,500 hospital beds avail-
able in Salonica. But the admissions to hospital for
malaria alone were a few hundreds only short of thirty
thousand. Thirty thousand !, and the great proportion
of these men from the front line ! This gives an idea
of what the Army, installed in a barren and inhospit-
able country, suffered from the evil attentions of a tiny
insect; a little brute which does not anger or instinc-
tively disgust you, as does a fly, nor make you feel
creepy (if you are built that way) as does a spider,
but which has the power suddenly to make populous
camps deserted ; to set hundreds of motor ambulances
rolling ceaselessly up and down, and to turn the tented
field of a great hospital into a place of overwork and
wholesale sickness, where doctors slave the clock round



and nurses are run off their legs. It is absurd, but it is
so. Man and the mosquito are made that way.

As the generous establishment of hospitals was in-
sufficient to deal with all the malarial cases under
treatment, and the fresh ones which constantly came
roUing in, patients were sent off to Malta by hospital
ship. Some twenty thousand were dealt with in this
way during 1916, and some of those who were more or
less themselves again felt, as they sailed over the blue
sea aivay from Salonica (but not when they were sailing
back) that malaria had its compensations. But the un-
restricted submarine warfare of 1917, in which the
Germans showed themselves base enough to attack
hospital ships, put a stop to all this. As a consequence
more and more hospitals were brought to Salonica, and
soon the great medical settlement of Kalamaria, where
the big hospitals gathered together near the sea,
formed a large-sized town, was rivalled by the
new settlement which sprung up on the lower
slopes leading up to Hortiach. And all this tre-
mendous expenditure of time and trouble and work
of organisation, of planning and replanning ; of big new
convalescent camps to take on where the hospitals left
off; of a thousand and one arrangements, military,
medical and naval, was negative. It did nothing to
help us to win the war, but was one of the things that
had to be done to prevent us losing it. Thirty thousand
of our men — including some of the best infantry in all
the British Armies — were out of action during the first
summer without having a wound amongst them ! There
are some things which certainly cannot be foreseen.

And 1916 was by no means the end of our troubles
from malaria. It was only the insignificant beginning.
The problem was tackled most energetically and the
medical authorities initiated preventive measures on a



very large scale in the way of oiling and draining stag-
nant waters, cutting down and burning great tracts of
brushwood, making sluggish streams flow swiftly. The
healthy men v/ere protected in every way possible —
mosquito-proof huts, gloves, head nets and nasty oint-
ments; and the men already infected treated with all
the medical skill which a close acquaintance with the
disease on a large scale had given us. But the chief
difficulty about dealing with malaria on such a scale
is that the patient is subject to frequent relapses. Again,
each fresh summer gave us, in spite of all the hard
work and devotion displayed, many new patients in
addition to those who were constantly going sick as a
result of their infection one or tv/o summers previously.
And this explains why, in spite of our experience and
improved methods, the total admissions for malaria
rose with each summer ; why the thirty thousand of
1916 had become sixty-three thousand in 1917 and
sixty-seven thousand (in a much-depleted Army) in
1918. By the summer of the latter year the Salonica
Army was full of listless, anaemic, unhappy, sallow men
whose lives were a physical burden to them and a
material burden to the Army ; who circulated back-
wards and forwards between hospital and convalescent
camps, passing only an occasional few days at work
with their units, and then l>eing sent away to do the
round of hospital and "con. camp" again. And the
admissions to hospital did not take into account the
great number of men who had constant relapses with-
out declaring them. Practically everybody in the Army
had malaria.

In 1916 Sir Ronald Ross, perhaps the world's fore-
most malarial expert, came out to Salonica to look
round. After doing so he said : " You'll have a good
deal of malaria this year, and a good deal more the



following year." Late in 1917 he came out again
(being torpedoed on the way across the Ionian Sea from
Taranto) and saw to what a striking extent his pro-
phecy had been fulfilled. So it was that the famous
"Y" scheme was brought into operation, by which all
chronic malaria patients were sent home. It was the
subject of innumerable quips and jokes among the men,
but was all the same the echo of a very grim and
serious business. Under this scheme, in the ten months
of January to October, 1918, nearly thirty thousand
men were sent home. They were not the victims of
shrapnel or bayonet or high-explosive (although many
carried their wound stripes also), but none the less they
were men broken in the wars. And our country should
not be allowed to ignore or forget the fact. In his
despatch dated December 1st, 1918, General Milne made
this point. In concluding with an expression of his high
appreciation of all ranks of the Army he said, "the
majority of them will return to their homes with con-
stitutions shattered by a prolonged stay in this malarial
and inhospitable country."

Mud and malaria ! We have devoted just one chapter
to them. But they really loom much larger than that
in the story of the B.S.F.



Home on Leave.

There came a wonderful morning when I stood on the
platform at the Orient Station waiting to step on the
leave train. It seemed far too good to be true. I had
been for twenty-seven months in and around Saloniea —
and it seemed at least twice as long. And my complete
joy and satisfaction were tempered by only one regret —
that so many people who had been out longer, and who

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 14 of 23)