Copyright
H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

. (page 15 of 23)
Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 15 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


deserved this wonderful morning far more, must be left
behind to "carry on" with all prospect of leave appar-
ently still as remote as ever.

This question of leave was one of the chief trials of
the Saloniea Army, especially in the later stages of
the campaign. The will to do it was there, but there
were many difficulties in the way. Transport, of
course, was one of the greatest of these. Leave parties
were organised at a fairly early stage, but the outbreak
of the ruthless submarine war of 1917 almost at once
made the regular transport of large bodies of troops by
sea an extremely difficult and dangerous matter. The
submarine problem in the Mediterranean was always a
critical one, largely so because of the impossibility of
obtaining a united command on sea. All the arguments
which were finally successful in vesting the supreme
military power in the hands of Marshal Foch applied
with at least equal force to the absolute co-ordination
of naval operations in the Mediterranean, and few
people would deny that everything pointed to the ad-
visability of putting the directing power in the hands
of the British Navy — at any rate, as far as the sub-

189



SALONICA AND AFTER

marine question is concerned. But alas ! many inter-
national prejudices and difficulties stood in the way
of its realisation. What we did on land our Allies would
not do on the sea.

The help given to German submarines in the iEgean
Sea and the Archipelago — an ideal region, with its deep
waters and innumerable islands, for submarine work —
was one of our chief grievances against Greece under
Constant ine. But even with this aid to the Germans
removed, the passage round Greece to Italy remained
perilous and costly in the extreme. What use to send
war-worn troops on leave if there was a high chance
of them all perishing en route ? As a consequence of
this eternal menace the overland route was, late in 1917,
finally set going. After many delays the railway
between Salonica and Athens was completed in June,
1916, but it was not until the autumn of 1917 that it
could be used for traffic. By means of this railway
troops could be taken down to Bralo, two-thirds of the
way to Athens, and from there carried 53 kilometres by
road to Itea on the Gulf of Corinth, from whence the
sea journey to Italy was very short, and splendidly
protected by the great Otranto Barrage which, in face
of enormous difficulties of many kinds, the British Navy
put down and maintained. In theory this seemed per-
fect and the granting of leave a comparatively easy
matter. But in practice it was otherwise. Rolling
stock was short, and the single line railway, which runs
up and down extraordinary gradients, was only capable
of handling a limited amount of traffic. In wet weather
landslips were always taking place, which blocked the
line for anything up to a week or more. The Greek
Army needed the railway for the new task ahead of it.
And added to all this, and many other things, the
French had first call on the railway for their own leave

]90



HOME ON LEAVE

troops, and exercised it. But once all this was disposed
of, similar difficulties began in Italy. There again
transport was limited — and very costly to us — and coal
was short. Owing, again, to the submarine, the main
line through Italy and France became more and more
necessary to our many enterprises in the East, Salonica
being only one of them. i\nd the disastrous events on
the Italian Front in November, 1917, closed the railway
for a long period to any such pleasant function as con-
veying leave parties. Moreover, the organization on
this line of communication was bad. Then in 1918 the
available transport was largely taken up by the men
going home on the '' Y " scheme. These were some,
by no means all, of the reasons which made leave
from Salonica an extremely difficult problem ; so that
although the B.S.F. authorities realised as well as any-
body the hardship of men being away from home in a
trying climate for three years and more, they were
powerless to alter the situation. All the same, it was
difficult to understand why, after eighteen months in
Macedonia, French and Italian troops should go home in
British ships while our own men were left behind. But
that has so often been the British part in the war — to
stand aside and concede to others what we wanted our-
selves. No doubt those who ruled our destinies at home
understood why. But it was a mystery to Tommy in
Macedonia.

However, I thought only vaguely of all those things
as I stepped in the train on that happy morning.
Friends were there to see friends off. Ours was a mixed
trainload ; a handful of British officers, a few hundred
men, and some six hundred Bulgar prisoners of the
fifteen hundred captured by the Greeks not long before
at Skra di Legen near the Vardar, the first action of the
new Greek Army on a considerable scale.

191



SALONICA AND AFTER

How many of us will remember in after years the
happy sensations of being actually in the leave train to
Bralo ! We were moving, and soon the incredible sight
appeared of Salonica disappearing — if one may put it
so. It was my second time in a railway train for well
over two years, and I felt like an excited youngster.
The carriages were dirty, but we were a merry party.
Food packages were undone and a wizard did wonderful
things with a Primus stove. I had obtained permission
to call in Rome and Paris and thus, travelling by rapide,
was free of the mingled horrors and amusements of the
long, long trip by troop train through Italy and France.
But the others had prepared for this dreadful journey,
and had brought extraordinary outfits so that they
might live and eat and wash and be warm on the road.
What tales will be told of those days and nights in the
leave trains. The officers may find it jolly enough in
retrospect (although even that is not likely). But the
men had such a thoroughly uncomfortable time in their
cattle trucks that many of them on returning to
Salonica swore that they would never go on leave again
even in the unlikely event of it being offered to them.

At Ekaterina, at the foot of mighty Olympus, the
Y.M.C.A. provided us with an excellent tea — one detail
of its many good works in the B.S.F. Then through
the famed and magnificent Vale of Tempe — the wonder-
ful gorge cutting between Mounts Olympus and Ossa —
surely one of the finest bits of scenery in all Europe,
with the river running through the majestic limestone
cliffs. Then across the wide plain of Thessaly, whose
corn Constantine relied on to hold out indefinitely, and
so at night to Larissa, where the E.F.C. provided us
with an excellent dinner. Life was running on oiled
wheels, but although some of us slept extremely badly
in the cramped space (we were five, which is a fatal

192



HOME ON LEAVE

number) the wonderful scenery when morning dawned
soon made us forget. We washed, hanging out of the
window, in canvas buckets attached to the door handle
and laughed like schoolboys at everything we did and
saw; and then crawled, jogged, and crawled along a
giddy shelf cut along the side of a mountain ridge which
opened out the most impressive prospect of mountain,
plain and sea, looking over somewhere towards Thermo-
pylae. French engineers constructed the line, and a
striking job it is. And so to Bralo station, near where
was situated our first rest camp.

The big rest camp was but one small detail of the
organization of the new leave service by the overland
route, which included hospitals, R.T.O.'s in abundance,
M.T. Companies with their lorries, canteens, and the
multitudinous things that go to the making of rest
camps on a large scale. We only had to stay one night
at Bralo, and next day started off in motor lorries on
the wonderful ride through the mountain pass to Itea.
It is possible that before the war som.e Europeans, as
we understand the word, had made this journey, but I
should think they were very few. The pass cuts right
through the Parnassus Range, and at the summit the
road reaches 2,900 feet. And here in one of the wildest
and most isolated valleys in Europe we constructed a
wonderful broad highway to take heavy lorry traffic.
The major portion of the work fell to us. The French
constructed a smaller portion on the further side of
the Pass and on to Itea, but in this they were very
much aided by the fact that for twelve miles there was
quite a good road running through a valley filled with
one of the largest olive groves in the world, and this
was kept in pretty good condition by the local inhabi-
tants for their own purposes.

Up, up we climbed — twenty-five lorries in line ;

198 o



SALONICA AND AFTER

one or two officers on each seat next the driver and the
bodies of the vehicles filled with cheerful soldiers all
bubbling over with the idea that they were really well-
started on the leave journey. We were all tourists ;
having a good time, and without a care in the world.
And the dust ! It was incredible. In half-an-hour we
could beat it from us in clouds. But what matter ?
We would have gone through fire and water. And so
on, through a wonderful mountain panorama to the
summit, and then down, down, with the road twisting
round and about into fantastic hairpin corners, until
suddenly we saw shining far away the blue waters of
the Gulf of Corinth and no Greeks under Xenophon
were more delighted to see the sea than we were. On
down to ancient Amphissa, prettily situated near the
beginning of the vast olive grove. Amphissa, though
not really much to talk about, had at first sight quite
an air of a pleasantly civilized little country town, de-
lightful to see, and standing on a little balcony as we
passed was — veritably — a really beautiful girl with dark
hair, who looked down with interest on the rumbling
convoy as it passed. After Salonica and Macedonia,
she seemed like a vision from heaven. Passing back
along the same route a month or two afterwards I looked
up at the balcony, but she was not there to greet us
this time.

The sun beat down fiercely on the road through the
olive grove and we created a dust storm as we passed.
The olive trees on either side, with their heavy burdens
of fruit, were caked with dust. And finally, struggling
up a hill, to the baked and dusty rest camp of Itea,
pitched on a bare rocky slope that seemed to be crying
aloud for water and greenery. But it was wonderfully
situated, with the blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth
below, the mountains of the Peloponnese far away, and

194




^■■.> ^ Macedonian "Ladies'" break-
^ ing stones for road-making.



The Pass Road from
Bralo down to Itea.




Photo : Cpl. ]. a Grew.



HOME ON LEAVE

rising close at hand, over the valley filled with its olive
grove, the great rounded bulk of Parnassus. And that
evening when we were sitting outside the Camp Com-
mandant's hut drinking a cool drink and a large moon
came sailing up over the crest of Parnassus and, peep-
ing down over the valley, bathed us all in its light, it
would have been impossible to imagine a fairer scene.

Bralo rest camp was on a plain just north of Par-
nassus and Itea rest camp on the slopes of a valley
just to the south of it, but we had to go round
some forty miles to get from one to the other. The
organization of a rest camp in Greece was by no means
such an easy matter as in Italy or France. But, given
the circumstances, they were both excellently done.
The reading or lounge room attached to the mess at
each place was a sort of clearing house for Macedonia.
Here one met every possible variety of men in the
Army, and those who were in a position to study them
for any length of time together must have had a fairly
good idea of what was going on. Generals, experts,
drafts, new flying officers, occasional civilians on special
missions, the chronic malaria patients going home under
the " Y " scheme, reinforcements (if any) — all these
passed up or down. The rest camps were the pulse of
what was doing in Macedonia. Here were heard many
theories and rumours — the spiritual food on which the
Army lives. And the difference in optimism between
those going and those returning was always to be re-
marked.

A few miles from Itea, far up a magnificent gorge
running into the flank of Parnassus, is the famous
Delphi, and what was in modem times only visited by
the archaeologist or an occasional leisurely and wealthy
tourist became a place of pilgrimage for many members
of our Army who were using the leave route. But only

195



SALONICA AND AFTER

the enthusiast went there, as it was a stiff pull on foot,
and transport was not easy to get. Fortunately the
excellent Camp Commandant was able to produce one
of the ubiquitous Fords which ran a few of us through
the olive grove and up the steep mountain road very
quickly. Fierce dogs chased us as we passed through
the Greek villages en route, and chubby babies — hun-
dreds of them — made noises at us. Unfortunately for
one's enjoyment of Delphi, my two companions were in
a hurry but we examined with some care the remains
of the Temple of Apollo, where the Oracle — who was not
troubled by the irritating by-laws which were inflicted
on Bond Street crystal gazers — gave forth through the
priestess those cryptic and tremendous utterances which
so often decided for peace or war. We sat on the
marble steps of the exquisite open-air theatre, and
tested its marvellous acoustic properties; paced the
Stadium ; awakened the echoes in the great red gorge
through which runs the Castalian spring ; and inspected
the unique treasures of the museum ; a banal building.
Delphi is a wonderful and awe-inspiring place, hemmed
in by the towering mountains ; a place where the indi-
vidual feels dwarfed and overpowered by the majesty
of nature in this fastness of beetling crags and startling
echoes. One could quite understand the pilgrim,
whether King or citizen, being in a very receptive mood
long before the revelation of Apollo was repeated to him
in hexameter verse by the priests. The mise-en-scene
was perfect, and I should say that in its palmy days
Delphi was one of the most efficient and flourishing
businesses ever known.

The Ford van rushed us back down the twisting
mountain road at a speed and a rotation that made my
hair stand up. Even the village dogs judged it well
to leave us well alone when we flashed past. I was

106



HOME ON LEAVE

sitting on the back, which was merely a wooden shelf,
and as we unwound the road behind us it looked like
a gigantic, writhing serpent, growing longer and longer;
and the high crest of Parnassus frowned upon us more
and more overhanging and minatory as we dropped
down. Perhaps the Oracle — splendid Apollo himself —
was kindly keeping an eye on us. For no other reason
can I imagine why the Ford did not turn turtle twenty
times. Why motor cars travel like this I do not pretend
to know. I sometimes think that the whole race of
motor-car drivers is slightly mad.

We arrived in camp to hear that we must be up at
two in the morning, in order to embark at three o'clock
— a most ungentlemanly hour. Three o'clock saw a
crowd of us packing the tiny landing stages of the httle
port of Itea — French and British and a big crowd of
ugly Senegalese. In the process of time we arrived on
board the S.S. Tymgad, a French ship of large size.
Most of us, forsaking the beauties of daybreak over the
picturesque Gulf, wisely went to our beds as soon as
we could find them. I was awakened by the uncanny
chatterings of the Senegalese, and found black faces
peering curiously through the deck window of my ex-
cellent cabin. (It is a wise thing to be a personal friend
of the A.M.L.O.) There was a full battalion of them
on board, and they crowded the whole space of the
promenade decks, lying down for most of the time and
constantly chattering like monkeys, in high-pitched
feminine voices. I was told by one of their officers that
they were all going to France as N.C.O.'s to take charge
of the new black army raised by General Nivelle. They
were not really very pleasant companions. *' Bons
enfants," said the officer — but not very far removed
from savages. I would not trust them too far in a
lonely place. In fact I have a friend who in a sudden

197



SALONICA AND AFTER

night encounter with three of them on the Lembet Road
owed his hfe solely to his practical knowledge of jiu-
jitsu. He was suddenly butted in the chest by one of
them, but managed to preserve his balance, got his
knee to work rapidly on all three and bolted as hard as
he could, leaving one of them at least temporarily dis-
abled and howling.

We had a submarine scare, and put into a little
harbour near Corfu that evening, but proceeded after
a delay of a few hours. The captain was a gay and
pleasant man. " Don't worry," he laughed. " This is
a lucky ship. Nothing will ever happen to her." It
seemed rather like tempting Providence, but the
Tymgad came out of the war all right — thanks to the
Otranto barrage. And so to Taranto without further
incident, through the narrow mouth of the wonderful
harbour, and into the British rest camp — the great junc-
tion of everything and everybody that lay eastwards.

That evening I sat in a real express train, feeling like
a Prince en voyage. It was good to see the green of
Italy ; better still perhaps to walk into a modern hotel
at Rome and later splash in a huge bath. And so to
Paris — " that is if the trains will still be running through
when you get there." Well over two years before, when
I had last come through Paris, the war seemed to be
ours; nobody talked then about the possibility of
danger to the capital. And now with the war nearly
four years old, she was menaced as she had never been
before. " Big Bertha " was busy, air raids were ex-
pected nightly, and the enemy pocket on the Mame
grew deeper. . . . And yet Paris was very much her-
self, and her restaurants smiled a gay (and expensive)
welcome as only the restaurants of Paris know how
to do.

There came another wonderful morning when we

198



HOME ON LEAVE

stood on the dockside at Southampton. I sent off a
telegram. The thrill it gave one to hear that it would
arrive in London in two hours and not (with luck) in
two weeks ! And then the homely South- Western train,
bless it, and the porters, with their red ties, just the
same. . . . The long, curving platform of Waterloo,
and, thank Heaven, somebody waiting on it. The click
of the clock on a taxi, and then the smooth, effortless
roll along London's level streets. No cobbles, no bump-
ing. No bullock wagons in the way ; no ancient Turk
or wrinkled Jewish patriarch wandering sleepily across
the road. Something seemed to go click in me too.
Was Macedonia a reality ? Had one ever been there,
or was it just a dream ? In any case it was a million
miles away.



199



CHAPTER XVI.

The Allied Operations.

Though during the long three-years campaign in the
Balkans there were many periods of enforced compara-
tive inactivity during which only the regular growling
of the artillery and the work of the patrols and the
Allied aviators kept up the offensive spirit, there was
far more fighting in the aggregate than most people in
the outside world realised, and amongst them the
various Allies — Serbians, French, British, Italians, even
Russians, and, finally, the Greeks — laid down many
thousands of lives on the barren mountains that mark
the frontiers of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria.

The Allied move out of the " Birdcage " in the spring
and early summer months of 1916 to take up positions
along the Greek frontier where the enemy — Bulgars,
Germans, Austrians and Turks — had now entrenched
themselves on most formidable positions, was followed
by a long period during which change, re-arrange-
ment, marching and counter-marching seemed to go
on interminably. This was due to various causes ; to
" bluff " on both sides; to a proposed Allied Offensive
along the Vardar, which had to be abandoned because
the Bulgars got in first with their own attack on the
left of the Allied line, against the Serbs ; and also be-
cause of the fact that at first, owing to a number of
reasons, British and French Divisions were mixed up
in rather higgledy-piggledy fashion. The troops, who
knew nothing of any of the reasons dictating these

200



THE ALLIED OPERATIONS

changes, found themselves committed to a good deal of
hard and exasperatmg marching and counter-marching
in exhausting heat which seemed to lead to nothing in
particular. Then the Italians who in September took
up a twenty-five mile line on the Krusha-Balkan sector,
between Lake Doiran and the Struma Valley, came as
another dividing wedge between the two wings of the
British front. It was not until towards the end of 1916
that the British finally settled down on the line running
from the Vardar to Doiran, round the elbow made by
the Krusha-Balkan range and so down the long Struma
Valley to the sea — a distance of about ninety miles.
This very extended front was held for two and a half
years. Along its whole length we were dominated by
enemy positions which were always markedly superior
in strength — and height — and as a rule immensely
superior. It was a crazy front, like the whole of the
Balkan front, and zig-zagged up and down steep hills,
in and out of ravines, ran along the tops of high ridges
and finally brought us up on the Struma with its odd
mixture of open and position warfare. To hold this
very long front, always against superior forces, we had
as a maximum four Divisions, much weakened by sick-
ness and casualties. The 10th Division, after its gallan-
try and hardships in the retreat down from the Bul-
garian frontier in 1915, took part in some stiff and
successful fighting in the Struma Valley in 1916, and
went to Palestine in September, 1917, there to win fresh
laurels. The 60th Division, which only arrived in the
Balkans in December, 1916, also went to Palestine in
June, 1917, and saw comparatively little service in the
Balkans, although it was to see plenty under General
Allenby later on and to play a big part in his victories.
At about the same time the 7th and 8th Mounted
Brigades also went to Palestine. The four Divisions

201



SALONICA AND AFTER

which are the most identified with the Balkan campaign
are the 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th. Theirs was the task
for over two years of holding alone the long British
front from the Vardar to the sea, a disposition which
was not disturbed until the entry of the Greeks into
line in 1918, when we gave up the Struma Valley to the
newcomers and for the first time extended our line
westwards over the Vardar.

The outstanding feature of all the Allied fighting in
the Balkans is not that we were so long in bringing
about a decisive victory, but that we did as well as
we did, with so many circumstances against us, and
were able at least to hold our own until the day when
a decisive push could really be expected to bring about
such a situation as would materially help towards bring-
ing the war to an end. It is the enemy for whom the
impartial historian should reserve his reproaches. They
held all the cards in their hands, and ought to have
driven us into the sea — as they often boasted they
would — long before the day when we at last hurled
them from their mountain ranges. They were on in-
terior lines, and for them the Macedonian front was,
practically, as accessible as any other front. They could
send down men and munitions from Germany within
a few days. But we depended on the long and
hazardous sea route, and every man, shell or tin of
bully beef that made that leisurely journey had, so to
speak, a price on his or its head — a price that was often
paid, in spite of the vigilance of the Navy. The enemy
as a rule considerably outnumbered us. His artillery,
direct from Essen, was always superior in weight. And
yet never once, with the possible exception of the Bulgar
summer offensive of 1916, was there a serious attempt
to thrust us out of Macedonia, although there were
times when our lines were so thin, and so weakly sup-

202



THE ALLIED OPERATIONS

ported, that a full-dress offensive, if backed by the
lavish German support so often displayed elsewhere,
must almost certainly have broken us. That the enemy
forces never really tried to put their boasts into execu-
tion must be ascribed largely to the fact that the Bul-
gars had obtained, at relatively small cost, most of
what they expected to get out of the war, and were un-


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 15 of 23)