H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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willing to pay on a rapidly ascending scale the price
necessary for further successes. They knew the quality
of the Allies, and realised that on the defensive we
should exact a bitter price. And why should the
Bulgars (many of them argued) run up scores of thou-
sands of casualties in striving for Salonica, knowing
that even if they reached it the Kaiser would see that
after the victory it remained in the hands of his brother-
in-law Constantine ? Again, the purpose of the enemy
was almost entirely served so long as they kept us from
severing the communications with Turkey and the East,
and this, following the treachery to Roumania and the
Russian collapse, was an easy matter to ensure. Fur-
ther, there seemed for a long period an excellent chance
of the intrigues of King Constantine accomplishing at
least half the work, and his final elimination was un-
doubtedly a big set-back for the enemy.

But with all these arguments in favour of the enemy
maintaining his defensive role, there can be little doubt
that it would have paid him handsomely to have forced
a decision on the Balkan front. With Russia in an-
archy, Roumania enslaved, and Salonica, Greece, and,
in fact, the whole of the Balkans in his hands, the
German triumph in Eastern Europe would have been
complete. Piraeus, the port of Athens, as well as Salon-
ica, would have been a submarine base, and what we
accomplished in the way of submarine trapping across
the narrow waters of the Adriatic would have been an



infinitely more difficult matter in the deep and broken
waters of the JEgean. Our communications with Egypt
and the East generally would have been infinitely more
difficult to maintain. The Greek Army would have
belonged to the Kaiser, and not to Venizelos and the
Allies. And the moral effect of an Allied evacuation of
Salonica — whether orderly or hurried — would have
been immense. It might not have won the war for
the enemy, but it would have immensely lengthened it
for us, and, as we now see, would have deprived us of
that " jumping-off place " for final victory which the
Balkan front was destined to become. Half the strength
expended on the Italian front in November, 1917, or
a quarter of that expended on the Western front in the
spring of 1918 must have given the enemy complete
victory in the Balkans. Had he obtained this there
would have been no back door remaining for us to
prize open, and so break up the Unholy Alliance. He
could have strengthened the Turks in Palestine and
Mesopotamia; the Italian front would have remained
in a condition of stalemate. Even if he had still shot
his bolt, and failed, in the West he could have held us
off for a long time so long as his Allies remained un-
broken. It was the props being knocked from under
him, as Mr. Lloyd George said, which brought the end
so precipitately, and the first prop to go, as we all
know, was the Balkan front. In other words, had
Salonica and Greece been captured by the enemy in
1917 or 1918, the war might easily have lasted for two
or three years longer, and even then might have ended
much less to the Allies' advantage. And if the chief
reason which prevailed on the enemy not to undertake
a large-scale Balkan offensive was the unwillingness of
the Bulgars to engage in an adventure which was bound
to be very costly to them, then we can only rejoice



that the Germans also laboured under the difficulties
which are common to most Alliances.

How often in the old days did we in Salonica argue
on the role of the Balkan front. Even those who were
serving on it often asked : " Is it worth while ? What
can we hope to do here with the forces we have, against
tlie positions that confront us ? As far as we are con-
cerned it is stalemate, and always will be." And how
often did one argue stoutly something in this wise :
" One day the enemy ring will crack. We shall break
through in the West, let us say. Then Germany's
Allies, seeing Germany definitely losing, will weaken
and think of making peace. The fact that we have a
force on hand in the Balkans, ready to push in another
segment of the weakening circle, will make all the
difference to our affairs in the West when the moment
comes. That is the role of the Balkan Armies : to hang
on patiently until the right moment. That is when we
shall make our presence felt, so that all our disappoint-
ments and our long waiting here will be more than

It was an argument which did not always convince.
But who could have foreseen how far it was to be from
the truth ; and not on the wrong side, but on the right
side. The break-through came not elsewhere but in the
Balkans itself, and the dramatic disintegration, ending
in final and grovelling collapse, came not so much
through Germany's Allies weakening because Germany
was beaten as Germany breaking because her Allies
were beaten. It was more than the most enthusiastic
and consistent " Balkanite " could have hoped for.

And a final word to round this off, by way of showing
that the writer does not hold an exaggerated view ot
what was ultimately done in the Balkans, or of what
could have been done there earlier. The Allied offen-



sive in the Balkans succeeded just at the one moment
when it was possible for it to succeed. Given the
troops we had to dispose of, or perhaps with many
more, at no other time after the enemy had taken up
his mountain positions in 1916 could we have fought
through and finally crumpled up the Balkan Front.
The idea, for instance, of cutting through and severing
Turkey from Bulgaria was never practicable — once the
Germano-Bulgars had fortified themselves on the key
positions of Macedonia, and once the Russians had
collapsed and Roumania had been overrun. The great
body of troops necessary for such an operation simply
could not have been properly handled and supplied in
a country possessing so many disadvantages. More-
over, at any earlier period of the war, whatever advan-
tage we had gained by a successful Balkan offensive
could have been almost immediately nullified by Ger-
many's power to rush down reinforcements at a rate
immensely superior to ours. We might (given we had
possessed the men) have captured — at a very great
expenditure in lives — one set of mountain ranges. At
the end of it, with our losses heavy upon us, we should
have been confronted with another series of positions
just as strong, and with powerful, fresh enemy forces
to overcome our depleted forces. Throughout the war,
almost to its end, Germany was always strong enough
to wipe out any advantage we might have gained in
the Balkans, and at the very best we should have gained
a very barren and costly victory by capturing a few
barren mountains.*

* This latter point is somewhat modified by the views expressed
bv General Henrys, the distinguished Commander-in-Chief of the
French Armee d 'Orient in a conversation I had with him in Salonica,
in February, 1919. " Germany still had large forces within call, even
at the moment when we broke through in 1918," he said. " There
was Mackensen in Roumania with '-'OO.OOO men. The reason he could
not get them down in time to heal the breach was because of the



The successful offensive in the Balkans came just at
the one moment when we had fresh forces (the Greek
Army) and when Germany, owing to her failures on
the West, found it impossible to scrape up any help
for the Bulgars. We held on and held on — and finally
struck just at the right moment. One need claim no
more for the Balkan Army than this ; that through
three years of disappointment and misconception it did
its job thoroughly by holding on, occasionally trying
the impossible, and that when its moment came it com-
pleted its job thoroughly by taking full advantage of
the occasion offered and opening the way to rapid and
final victory. In September, 1918, it was impossible to
put a limit to the length of tlie war. In October, 1918,
following the Balkan offensive, even the least optimistic
of us saw the great Colossus was really tottering, and
that a cessation of fighting by Christmas was not a wild
impossibility. It came in November.

To all this, the Home Critic might reply : " Yes, no
doubt there is something in all this, but why didn't we
go to Serbia's help sooner ? Then you might have done
something in your Balkans at a much earlier date."
The answer is that we did not possess the men. All our
surplus had been committed to the Dardanelles, and
by the time the expedition to Salonica had come into
question the Dardanelles was as definitely behind us as
the battle of Agincourt. It is true that if instead of
engaging originally in the Dardanelles campaign we

extraordinary rapidity with which the Serbs, once the breach was
made, exploited their success and forged ahead. As the German
troops arrived from Roumania they were pushed to right or left by
the advancing Serbs, and never succeeded in forming a front." But
the Germans and Austrians were by now shaken and hesitating
before our continued successes in France, and it is pretty certain
that they would have succeeded in doing in 1917 what they failed
to do in 1918. Which brings us back to the point that the Balkan
offensive succeeded iust at the one moment ordained for it.



had sent our Divisions to Serbia, the war would have
gone much better for us. Bulgaria would almost cer-
tainly not have come in and Turkey would never have
been joined up to Germany. But this opens up an im-
mense vista which leads back at least as far as the
Treaty of Berlin, and perhaps we had better pursue it
no further. And though we were fighting for the Right
we cannot expect to have all the luck and all the wis-
dom on our side all the time.

And the Home Critic might say again : "Yes, no
doubt you are doing your best to make out a good
case. But what annoyed us at home was that on the
Salonica Front you only went in for fighting now and
again, whereas on the Western Front somebody was
fighting all the time. How was it you didn't fight
oftener ?" And the answer is that if the British Balkan
Army had fought for a whole fortnight on end as it
fought, on several occasions, two-day and three-day
battles at Doiran, it would have been wiped out entirely.
And then, Mr. Home Critic, you would have had to send
out another army.

The fighting in the Balkans may be divided into four
main phases : —

(1) The Franco-British expedition to save Serbia late
in 1915, which failed in its object because our troops
were too few and arrived too late, so that the Serbs
were driven down into Albania before General Sarrail
could effect a junction with them far away up the Var-
dar. The Allied Forces had to fall back on Salonica
after fighting heavy actions with far superior forces
of Bulgars, but the enemy did not try to push his ad-
vantage further and remained on or near the Greek

(2) The fighting in the summer and autumn of 1916.



This began with French and British attacks in the
region of Doiran, with the idea of improving our posi-
tions there in order to facilitate a proposed Alhed ad-
vance up the Vardar. The French captured Tortue
Hill and the British, Horseshoe Hill. But these opera-
tions had to be abandoned because of a strong Bulgar
thrust which in August was delivered against the Serbs
on our left wing. This attack, generally called the
Battle of Ostrovo, was finally, and with difficulty, held
up. In September a strong Franco-Serbian counter-
offensive, aided by the Italians and Russians, was
started, and after weeks of very bitter fighting, par-
ticularly on the part of the Serbs, Monastir was cap-
tured on November 19th, four years to the day after
the Serbs captured it from the Turks in 1912. This
success could not be pushed thoroughly home owing
to the fatigue and losses of all the Allied troops. To
aid in the Monastir operations, the British carried out
a number of major actions ; first the attack on the
Mackukovo lines near the Vardar on September 11th,
followed by the very successful fighting on the Struma
plain in late September and October when, in several
battles, notably those of Bala, Zir, Barakli-Djuma and
Jenikeui, very heavy losses were inflicted on the enemy
at moderate cost to ourselves.

(3) The Allied offensive of 1917 which opened too
early, and on the left, where the French were engaged
in the region of Monastir and Lake Presba, was ham-
pered by very bad weather in extremely difficult coun-
try. In April and May the British attacked twice the
very formidable positions of '^ P " Ridge and Petit
Couronne near Doiran and suffered very heavy losses
without achieving any really useful result. The various
Allied attacks of this year, for various reasons, lacked
cohesion, just as they had done in France.

209 p


(4) The fighting of 1918. Raids by the British on a
large scale at Doiran and on the Struma in April and
May. Successful action in May by the Greeks agamst
the positions of Skra di Legen to the west of the Vardar,
in which 1500 prisoners were taken. In August the
British 27th Division, which had moved from the Struma
to the west of the Vardar, engaged in continuous raids
and attacks which had the effect of completely deceiving
the enemy as to our intentions. September 15th saw
the opening of the big offensive by the French and Serbs
in the Sokol-Vetrenik sector, which resulted in an im-
mediate break-through at a point weakly held by the
enemy. To enable the success to be exploited the
British, in liaison with the Greeks, carried out strong
holding attacks against the formidable positions east
and west of Doiran, where they were faced by a heavy
concentration of picked troops and artillery on practi-
cally impregnable positions. A splendidly timed, co-
hesive, general action all along the line, which resulted
in complete Bulgar defeat and capitulation, and the
signing of the Armistice with Bulgaria on September

This compressed recital of the fighting activities of
the Allied Armies during three long years gives no idea
of their gallant work, their numerous smaller engage-
ments, and their many trials and disappointments dur-
ing the course of the campaign. In 1916 the Allied
Governments had by no means settled down as to what
the Balkan Armies were to be allowed to attempt.
Much was hoped for by the entry of Roumania, which
promised to hold our Balkan enemies between a vice,
but the enemy, just as desirous as we were of impress-
ing Roumania with the idea of who were stronger in
the Balkans, opened on August 18th a powerful sur-
prise attack against the Serbs to the east of Lake Os-



trovo. The situation was complicated by the fact that
between the Serbs and the enemy were the Greek fron-
tier guards who allowed, and even aided, the first enemy
columns to cross the frontier. The immediate driving
in of the Serbian outposts at Fiorina was followed by
an attack in force of some 12,000 Bulgars, and after
several days' heavy fighting in fierce heat on stony,
barren mountains the position seemed critical. But the
Serbians, fighting with their customary fierceness and
tenacity, and although very much outnumbered, gave
ground only at the price of heavy^ casualties inflicted on
the enemy. Serbian reinforcements were quickly com-
ing into action, and after nearly a week's steady ad-
vance the Bulgarian push was definitely stayed, though
not until the Serbs were driven right on to Lake Os-
trovo. The Battle of Ostrovo culminated in five separ-
ate Bulgar attacks in one day on the hardened Serbian
line, all of which were smashed, the Bulgars suffering
very hea\^ casualties.

The story of the Allied reaction when, very shortly
afterwards, the enemy was driven back over all the
ground he had taken and finally out of and beyond Mon-
astir, is a magnificent record of tenacious attack amid
physical conditions which cannot possibly be apprecia-
ted by those who have never seen the Balkan front.
It was an offensive on the grand scale, with nearly the
whole of the French forces in Macedonia joined to the
First and Third Serbian Armies, with very useful par-
ticipation from the Italians and Russians, and with
general liveliness on our part in order to keep the
enemy thoroughly engaged. The counter-offensive
began towards the middle of September, and the Serbs
went for their hereditary enemies like furies, throwing
them first of all off the steep Gornichevo Pass, which
winds up and up on the main Monastir Road. The



Serbs, for the most part, were fighting on the right of
the offensive, amid the high tumbled mountains, and
the French on the broad plain that runs from near
Lake Ostrovo up to Monastir. On September 17th the
French and Russians captured Fiorina, and two days
later the Serbs accomplished one of the finest feats of
the war in winning the highest crest of Kaimakchalan,
a mountain of over eight thousand feet. It was stark,
bitter hand to hand fighting up on that windy summit,
and nothing but a fierce mixture of bravery and hate
won it, for the Bulgars defended themselves like demons
and only a hundred of them were captured. The rest
were dead. After their first successes the French were
held up for weeks against the formidable, strongly-
organised Kenali lines running across the plains. It
was the amazing onward battling of the Serbs, fight-
ing for peak after peak, and winning them, which
caused the fall of Monastir by outflanking it, and the
French Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies under-
lined this point in his communique. But the Italians
and Russians, as well as the French and Serbs, had an
appreciable share in this notable success, which un-
fortunately could not be pushed further, in spite of
repeated Allied attacks. The enemy remained strongly
entrenched on the hills a few miles behind the town,
brought up strong German and Bulgar reinforcements,
and soon Monastir had to submit to continuous bom-

The British attack on the Mackukovo lines, just to
the west of the Vardar, occurred on the night of Sep-
tember 13th-14th, after a three days' artillery prepara-
tion. The attack was intended purely as a holding
attack so as to enable our Allies to the west of the line
to progress further in their push for Monastir — the kind
of part which it was our fate to play throughout the cam-



paign. The attack was carried out by the 12th Lanca-
shire Fusiliers and the 14th Liverpools, supported by the
4th East Lancashires and 11th Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
It was our biggest action of this nature so far in
Macedonia, and the strong enemy lines, held by Ger-
man troops, were gallantly carried, over 200 Germans
being killed by bomb and bayonet. Our men
beat off several counter attacks during the night, but
next day they came under the heavy concentrated fire
of the Guevgheli group of enemy batteries, suffering
severely, and were brought back to avoid further losses.
Shortly afterwards began our extensive operations
on the Struma, equally intended to keep the eastern
half of the enemy line busy so that no troops could be
withdrawn for the reinforcement of the Monastir sec-
tor. These operations were carried out in the last days
of September and on throughout October. At this time
the Bulgars still held in force all the villages to the
(north of the Struma, and we held the Orljak bridge-
head, also to the north of it. The operations included
the capture of Karadjakeui-Zir and Karadjakeui-Bala
(always referred to as Zir and Bala) and the big village
of Jenikeui. On the last day of October we carried
out attacks on a forty or fifty mile front in the valley
beyond the river, the chief objective being the strongly-
held village of Barakli Djuma. Throughout, these
Struma operations were uniformly successful, both in
holding strong Bui gar forces on that front, and in pun-
ishing the enemy wherever we found him. Artillery
and infantry co-operation were excellent, and occasion-
ally armoured cars were used. The biggest thrashing
administered to the enemy was in the battle of Bala-Zir-
Jenikeui, when over 1,500 Bulgar corpses were after-
wards buried. His total losses in this battle were at
least 5,000; and at the end of it the enemy was



thoroughly beaten. From that time onwards the
Bulgars never gave us an opportunity of meeting them
in any great force on the plain (although we often
tempted them) but, with the exception of strong patrols,
stuck to such positions as could be absolutely smothered
by the artillery posted on the commanding mountains
in their hands.*

Following on the long lull in the 1916-17 winter,
during which period the menace of Constantine's Army
occupied a considerable amount of Allied attention and
preparations, the Allied 1917 operations opened with a
French attack in March in the wild mountainous region
situated between the two big lakes of Presba and Och-
rida, away on the far left of the Allied line, in Albania.
They were doomed to failure because of the extremely
bad weather that broke out shortly after their com-
mencement, so that the country was hidden under a
heavy snowfall and the roads became impassable.
Another attack was made north of Monastir, but
although a certain measure of success was won, the
French could not maintain their hold on the chief
height. Hill 1248, overlooking the town, and Monastir
still remained under the domination of the enemy's

So far, since the enemy took up his 1916 positions,

* The units of the 10th, 27th, and 28th Divisions engaged in these
extensive operations, and in later fighting on the Struma, included
the 2nd Gloucesters, 2nd Camerons, 1st Royal Scots, 1st A. and S.
Highlanders, 1st, 6th and 7th Royal Munster Fusiliers, 6th
and 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1st and 6th Royal Irish Rifles, 5th
Connaught Rangers, 1st and 6th Leinster Regiment, 5th and 6th
Royal Inniskilling P'usiliers, 2nd, 5th and 6th Royal Irish Fusiliers,
2nd Royal Lanes. Regiment, 2nd East Yorks, 1st York and
Lancaster Regiment, 1st K.O.Y.L.I., 1st Suffolks, 2nd Cheshires,
1st Welsh Regiment, 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd K.S.L.I.,
3rd K.R.R.C, 4th Rifle Brigade, 4th K.R.R.C, 7th Mounted
Brigade (S. Notts Hussars, Sherwood Rangers Yeo., Derby Yeo.),
13th Royal Highlanders (Scottish Horse), 10th Hampshire Regiment,
10th Camerons, 2nd The Buffs, 3rd Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Duke of Corn-
wall's Light Infantry, and 3rd Middlesex.



he had initiated one successful '*push" against the Serbs,
which had been rapidly turned into a signal defeat
from the combined French, Serbian, Italian and Russian
forces, resulting in the fall of Monastir. On the Struma
plain he had met the British in three or four encounters,
and had been thoroughly beaten on each occasion. The
French had made two further attempts to dislodge him
from his mountain strongholds on the western wing
and had failed. It was now the turn of the British to
attack him in the very centre and hinge of all his moun-
tain line, an operation which opened under the un-
favourable auspices of lack of complete understanding
between the Allied commands. We come to one of the
greatest moments in the history of the British cam-
paign in the Balkans ; the first attacks on those formid-
able defences known as the "Pip" Ridge and Petit




The Doiran Sector, where our trenches ran across the
Serbian-Greek frontier, was the one which pre-eminently
gave the lie to the childish idea which existed at one
time that the British Army in the Balkans did not fight.
This line of trenches, running through very hilly ground
from near Doiran Lake westwards towards the Vardar,
was always a very uncomfortable region, and at times
a very inferno. The conditions here were in every way
comparable to trench warfare in France, save that they
were complicated by the extraordinarily difficult nature
of the ground. Trench mortars, "crumps," hand gren-
ades, trench raids, snipers, massed machine guns, barra-
ges, concrete dug-outs, and all the other devilries of
modern warfare played their usual parts. Counter
battery work was the order of the day, and round every
camp and every twisting, switchback road up which
our pack-transport came at night shell holes were to be
seen by the hundred. Our trenches were cut in the
rocky side of ravines and over the barren tops of swell-

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 16 of 23)