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H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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The ship's captain, a slim and resolute looking man of
about thirty, stuck to his guns and was even said to be
prepared to use one. He would do as he liked with his
own ship. True she might list a bit, but that didn't
matter. She had done the same thing many a time
before. The cheese was now on board and he was going
to take it to Salonica. The Greek and Jewish tobacco
merchants waved their arms at him and called him a
potential assassin.

Finally the Capitaine du Port gave a ruling. It was
true that more cargo had been taken on. But on the
other hand a goodly number of passengers had dis-
embarked. Consequently there were 45 tons less weight
on the ship than there had been before. Nobody
believed him, but the Capitaine du Port departed in his
boat. The captain went back to his bridge and left

10



GETTING THERE

the deputation still talking. We put out of Volo, the
Helda feeling just about as springy and lifelike as a
Thames coal lighter.

And even this voyage came to an end. Early after-
noon next day found us off Salonica, looking a fairy
place, with its hundreds of caiques in the harbour, the
steeply sloping and picturesque town going up to the
hills beyond, and the long front appearing to be deli-
cately resting on the water. It is the eternal mirage
and illusion of the East, which from afar promises so
much and on closer acquaintance gives so little.
Salonica smiled her best welcome. I little dreamed how
Jong I and so many others would be there, and how
much we should long to see the last of her.

A plain clothes French police officer came off to meet
Madame. He was not an optimistic or cheerful person.
"Une sale ville,*' he said, when we were settled in the
boat. "Four months have I been here already. And
apparently one is going to be here all one's life." Then
the worrying douane. And finally plump into the main
street of Salonica with its noise ; its crowded trams ;
its polyglot and multi-coloured population ; its rattling,
springless carts ; its buffalo waggons ; its innumerable
loustros, or bootblacks ; its soldiers of half a dozen
nations — and all the other things we got to know so
well, and loathed, tolerated or liked, according to our
temperaments.

A little later I met Madame's husband, M. le Capi-
taine X. He was forty-five or more, rotund and bald,
and a very matter-of-fact personage indeed. But, all
the same, I am sure that for him Madame would have
undertaken that horrible voyage ten times over. Such
is the wayward power of love !



11



CHAPTER II.

When the B.S.F. was Young.

Once upon a time it was difficult to write for the
world in general about Salonica and its Army. One
had to explain ; to apologise almost for its existence ;
to show what an important link were the British and
Allied forces in Macedonia in the chain that surrounded
our enemies, and how some day their role would be tre-
mendously important. And with all the explanation
one knew that the world at large was only half con-
vinced, or not convinced at all. But the task now is
easy. The work of the Salonica Army is done, and well
done. Its vital share in the great victory is already
clear, and when the historian takes up the story it may
be that it will stand out in even greater relief than it
does to us ; or, at any rate, it is certain that he will
realise from the outset of his labours what most people
during the war only appreciated after years of mis-
conception. But already, without waiting for the his-
torian, the extreme value of the Macedonian campaign
is striking and decisive enough. The Balkan Armies
made the first real breach in the enemy ring, which
resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria, and brought
Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and finally Germany herself,
tumbling down in ruin.

For the moment we will talk of Salonica of the old
days, when the war threatened to be interminable, and
men settled down to exile with as good a grace as
possible. A distinguished supply officer, who was one
of the first of our army to set foot there, has put down

12



WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

some of his impressions of that time. "It is difficult,"
he says, "to treat seriously the situation in Salonica in
the beginning of October, 1915. The setting of the
Place de la Liberte, with its cafes spread along each
side of the brilliantly lighted square, where the Greek
officers during the first mobilisation disported them-
selves in brilliant uniforms with their smartly dressed
women-folk, was suggestive of the opening scene of a
Balkan comic opera, and this atmosphere was intensi-
fied by the general topsi-turviness of the situation.

"Imagine a British Army landing in a neutral
country, supposedly friendly, but actually engaged in
active and organised opposition, of the passive resist-
ance variety. Imagine the German and Austrian
Consuls in a town containing more than a sprinkling of
their own nationalities, of Turks, Bulgarians, and other
enemies, counting each British soldier and gun as they
passed the dock gates, and concocting in the evening
their daily telegram sent by Greek wireless to Berlin.
Imagine the mail train passing through the British
Base up the British Lines of Communication, to the
British Railhead at Doiran, with its daily freight of
spies and alien enemies, bound for the hostile capital
of Constantinople, and returning thence without let or
hindrance. Imagine all these things, and you have a
fairly accurate picture of early days in Salonica. A
situation which would doubtless have appealed to the
librettist, but which did not argue well for serious
military operations.

"The first forlorn little party of Allies to land in
Salonica consisted of a military mission of seven British
and two French officers. Spirited away from Mudros
harbour in the middle of the night of September 29th,
in a destroyer under sealed orders, they were pushed
unceremoniously ashore between the White Tower and

1.3



SALONICA AND AFTER

the Marble Steps, and made a somewhat pitiful picture
with their baggage and their batmen, and nowhere
particular to go to. Our instructions, opened during
the passage from Mudros, were somewhat vague. We
were told to prepare for the possible arrival of five
divisions, and that fuller instructions would await us
at the British Consulate. We therefore repaired thither,
leaving two clerks, the batmen and the baggage as the
centre of a curious crowd on the beach. The Consul-
General was on leave, but we were received by the Vice-
Consul, who appeared to be somewhat embarrassed by
our arrival."

The Vice-Consul had only heard of the probable
arrival of the party half an hour before, and was quite
unable to help.

"There was little more to be done for that day but to
dispose of ourselves and our belongings. The French
officers wisely got into mufti and became civilians, but
the British continued to render themselves subject to
summary internment by remaining in uniform in a
neutral country in war time.

"The next few days were spent in reconnaissance of
the harbour, railway and local topography, and in
entering into various agreements and purchases, most
of which were subsequently annulled by the action of
the Greek Government, which stepped in and requisi-
tioned nearly the whole of the articles purchased and
the buildings hired. We managed to borrow a set of
maps from the Standard Oil Company, which proved
to be invaluable, as none were obtainable elsewhere.
Two of us were arrested for making a reconnaissance
of the Croisement Militaire, but fortunately the subal-
tern commanding the guard had been an engineer in
Belgium before the war and 1 ad pro-entente sympathies.
He was easily persuaded to let us go again.

M



WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

"On October 2nd a wire was received from the British
Minister in Athens saying that our arrival was unexpec-
ted, that it was causing poHtical embarrassment, and
that we ought to return whence we came. This was
rather a blow, but we replied that we were sent out
under War Office instructions, and could not leave with-
out orders from the same source, and asked the Minister
to repeat both cables home. The political situation
certainly was delicate, and to judge by the local papers
our arrival had occasioned considerable consternation.
There were stormy scenes in the Greek Parliament, and
in the end the Greek Government protested against the
landing, but did not take any active military steps to
prevent it.

"At 9 p.m. on the night of the 2nd we heard through
French sources that our position was being officially
recosfnised, and this was confirmed at 11 p.m. by the
Greek authorities. This removed the danger of intern-
ment for the time being, but did not have much practi-
cal effect in reducing our difficulties. We found our-
selves blocked at every turn by a solid phalanx of Greek
obstructionists. We found that everything that we
wanted could only be obtained by referring to half a
dozen different officials, each of whom did his best to
delay matters, but the whole business was so insidious
and so cleverly manoeuvred that I do not think any of
us suspected hostile intent until months afterwards."

Such was the beginning of the Allied campaign in
Macedonia, and our difficulties, due to local obstruc-
tion, went on at an increasing rate for many months.
I arrived in Salonica just as the Serbs were beginning
to come in after being reconstituted at Corfu, following
their terrible winter retreat tlirough Albania. King
Constantine and liis friends the enemy had been nicely

15



SALONICA AND AFTER

bluffed. He had refused to allow the passage of the
Serbian troops over the railways of Greece, and while
the wrangle was proceeding the British and French
Naval forces had made their preparations, and the
Serbs were brought by sea to Salonica without the loss
of a single man, in spite of the submarines that lurked
round the friendly shores of Constantine's kingdom.
Some day a historian may tabulate and compare the
various instances of Allied and enemy bluff during the
war. I think it will be found that we easily proved his
superior in this respect, as in most others.

The Serbs, then, came to add their share to the
already varied aspect of life in Salonica. The French
and British had already been there for nearly six
months. They had made the unsuccessful advance up
into Bulgaria in order to try and rescue the Serbian
Armies at the last moment. It Was a courageous and
hopeless attempt which failed, as we can now see it
was bound to do, but it was by no means labour lost.
The Serbian Army was destined to play a great part in
reclaiming the Balkans. The help of 1915 had been
sent too late, but the Serbians knew that it had been
sent, and that they were by no means entirely friend-
less. And from that Allied expedition up to Bulgaria
really dates the re-birth of the Serbian nation, even
though it seemed to them, at the time, that all was
lost.

Under conditions of the greatest difficulty, with mud,
snow, rain, and the worst of communications to contend
with — not to mention Greek hostility — the Allies re-
treated throusrh the mountainous country' beyond Lake
Doiran, punishing the Bulgars severely all the way, and
leaving them sufficiently exhausted not to be able to
follow us on to Salonica. Had they done so the story
might have been very different, to our disadvantage.

16




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WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

On the other hand it might have turned out badly for
the enemy. Had the Bulgar pushed on to Salonica,
and had we held him there on the strong line of hills,
lakes and marshes that run round the city (the line
known to the British as the "Birdcage"), he would have
greatly lengthened his communications and would have
had to undertake an enormous amount of organisation
and pioneer work, chiefly in the way of road making,
which later fell to the lot of the Allies, and principally
to the British. Also, he would not have been so strongly
entrenched on the formidable line of mountains up-
country which afterwards resisted so many Allied
assaults, and which were finally only carried in the
victorious offensive of September, 1918. It is a pretty
speculation, and one which, perhaps, it is profitless to
pursue further now.

After the Allied retreat on to Salonica, in which a
great part was played by the 10th (Irish) Division,
General Sarrail at once set about the organisation of
the "Birdcage," and British and French dug and wired
feverishly. It was quite expected that the Bulgars
would attack, and in the meantime the correspondents
on the spot were allowed to announce to the world that
the Allies now found themselves in one of the strongest
"entrenched camps" ever made. It was no doubt
largely true. But here again it is possible that the
element of bluff played a part. The Allies were by no
means organised properly as yet for resistance to a
serious attempt, backed possibly by heavy German
support, to capture the great ^Egean seaport, on which
the whole of our Balkan campaign rested. And it was a
very good thing indeed, just then, to let the enemy
know some of the difficulties that lay before him, and
even exaggerate them. Allied reinforcements were only
just beginning to arrive, and we needed time to take
breath. 17 c



SALONICA AND AFTER

The Bulgar never came down, and the Allies set them-
selves to the task of reinforcement and organisation.
French and British troops poured in, and our men as
they landed expected immediate fighting. They had
to camp, in most unhospitable weather, on barren and
muddy tracts of ground to the west of the old city,
which later were to become organised camps on a huge
scale, but which at that time were regarded merely
as temporary halting places. Many of them landed in
an appalling blizzard — the worst known in Macedonia
for years past. (But we had plenty later on.) The British
sent some splendid divisions, and it was well that they
did, for only the best of troops could have "stuck" the
long monotony and discouragement of the Balkan cam-
paign, with its unpleasant mixture of difficult fighting,
fever and boredom. Following the 10th Division, the
22nd, 28th, 26th, and 27th Divisions came, in the order
named, and what most of them thought at the time
was to be a quick and short campaign away from the
main theatre of war, developed into the three-years
long vigil, which was not to bring its final success until
the Autumn of 1918. Both Corps headquarters were
installed within a few miles of the city ; the 12th on a
huge mound near Lembet, supposed to be the site of
ancient fortified villages ; and the 16th in the pictur-
esque little village of Kiredjkeui, on the hilly road run-
ning up to the mountainous region of Hortiach ; quite a
charming little place with a narrow, winding main
street that always remained a great problem for traffic.

It was, until quite recent times, a retreat for brigands
and comitadjis, v/ho used occasionally to descend from
there into the city, some five or six miles over the hills,
and carry off a plump bourgeois for ransom. A few
vears before the war a member of an English family
who lived in Salonica was captured one evening just

18



WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

as he stepped off the tram and walked into his front
garden on the main boulevard of the city. A heav'y
ransom was exacted for his return, and this was paid
by the Turkish Government. The whole immediate
region round the city, which was for so long covered
with Allied camps was, until the troops came, a no-
man's-land for the inhabitants of Salonica. The Greeks,
after their arrival in 1912, in the first Balkan War, had
done a considerable amount of good police work, but
Macedonia still remained Macedonia, and there were
many thousands of Saloniciens who had never stirred
outside the limits of their city.

The hard winter of 1915, then, and the opening
months of 1916 was a period of feverish activity on the
part of the Allies. The great transports that came into
the splendid bay discharged troops or munitions daily.
There were docks, camps, offices, transport, telephones,
dumps, hospitals — a thousand and one things to be or-
ganised. Salonica was only a corner of the Great War,
but it immediately became a base for a campaign on a
very large scale — a campaign of much greater propor-
tions, for instance, than the South African War. The
period was full of incident and excitement, although for
the time being there was no fighting. The Allied
cavalry patrols, far out up-country, beyond the line of
the "Birdcage," kept a watchful eye on the Bulgar,
who, as a matter of fact, was digging himself into the
positions which he w^as to hold for three years. The
Royalist Greek troops quartered round Salonica were,
throughout these first months, a source of much worry
and anxiety to the Allied commanders. Ex-King Con-
stantine was just beginning his really sinister work.
He seems an inconsiderable figure now that he is
merely a deposed monarch inhabiting a Swiss villa,
but he had great potentialities for mischief then, and for

19



^



SALONICA AND AFTER

long afterwards. There came the day in May, 1916,
when, by his orders, Rupel Pass, the gateway from
Bulgaria into Macedonia, was surrendered to the
enemy. The Greek army corps of Colonel Hadjopoulos
surrendered to the Bulgars at Kavalla, and the enemy
occupied that region and established themselves on the
great mountain ranges (through which the Rupel Pass
is the only gateway) which later marked the whole
length of the British front. General Sarrail had already
turned out the enemy consuls. He now, by a minor
coup d^etatf occupied the Greek post and telegraph
oflBces. There had been a good deal of leakage of in-
formation on the wires, and it was high time to stop
And, as a minor detail, the staff of the British Base
Commandant were turned out of their offices by certain
smaller denizens of Salonica, whose blood-thirstiness
and vigour in attack were to become a byword to us all.
And so the summer of 1916 opened — that terrible
summer which cost the British forces more dearly than
many a minor campaign which has added great ttacts
of territory to the Empire. Salonica was now probably
the most crowded city in the universe. The Serbs had
arrived, and a little later came the Italians and the
Russians. The streets, the restaurants, the cafes, and
the cinemas all held far more people than was safe or
comfortable. May opened with very hot weather, and
the speckless blue sky that overhung the noisy, swelter-
ing city was hardly clouded until late autumn. This
was long before the Great Fire, which reduced nearly
a square mile of central Salonica to a mass of ruins.
Every street rang and echoed with the noise of rattling
carts, clanging trams, rumbling lorries or trumpeting
automobiles. For those who lived or worked in the
centre of the town the noise, the crowds, and the heat
became a constant and normal misery, like toothache

20



WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

indefinitely prolonged. After a time it produced a kind
of stupor. A month seemed a year. By the time the
summer was half through, one seemed to have been
scorched and jostled and deafened for ever in Salonica,
and the twenty or thirty or forty years one had pre-
viously lived in England or elsewhere seemed to have
shrunk to the dimensions of a pleasant incident.

The Place de la Liberte was the centre of all life in
those days. It had cafes on both sides of it, and save
for the hottest part of the afternoon it was certainly
the most crowded and cosmopolitan spot in the
universe. Looking down on it from the balcony of the
Cercle des Etrangers — an excellent club founded years
ago by a British Consul-General, and in many ways the
pleasantest interior in Salonica — one realised for the
first time the real meaning of such words as "cosmopoli-
tan," "polyglot," and "crowded." There were officers
and soldiers of the five Allies ; Turks, Albanians, Greeks
(soldiers and otherwise), sailors from half a dozen
navies ; Allied "native" soldiers — Algerians, Indians,
Annamites, and ugly Senegalese ; Balkan peasants in
their rough frieze dresses, with bright waist-bands ; and
the innumerable all-pervading Spanish Jews and Jew-
esses of Salonica. The buzz of their continuous con-
versation, in half the languages of Europe, rose like
the noise of surf on a beach. And in the cooler hours,
when the populace came forth en masse from their villas
and apartement houses and warrens, one might have
waltzed on their heads.

Here, too, the military bands used to play, and those
afternoons were the happiest in the life of the city.
The British figured very little in this. I remember
seeing the band of the 7th Wiltshires once, but it went
up-country with its battalion, and British music was
heard no more. The French do these joyous and im-

21



SALONICA AND AFTER

pressive things with much greater appetite and success
than we do. They had a band which was largely com-
posed of trumpeters, and their music was of a most
martial and inspiring kind, though a little too vibrant
for all tastes. But to see the trumpeters lower their
instruments with a flourish, and a twist of the gaily
decorated banners that hung from them ; or to hear the
band play the Sambre et Meuse, was very thrillmg and
exciting. The crowd never failed to applaud frantic-
ally, with long rolls of hand-clapping. The Italians,
too, brought a band, which was of a quieter nature.
Life is not all trumpets. And when Constantine went
and the star of Venizelos was in the ascendant again,
the Greeks produced a very good band and took their
turn in the concerts of the week.

And over the way at Floca's, now by general consent
the chic cafe of the city, the officers and soldiers of the
Allies, and the better class residents of the city, sat
jammed elbow to elbow at the round tables and drank
tea, coffee or light beer, and ate large quantities of
excellent and expensive cakes. The hospitals had
settled down, and many English sisters and nurses were
often to be seen. It was one of our few consolations that
with the whole world at war almost the best chocolates
of the time could be bought at this cafe. The industrious
brothers who presided over it never (by some miracle)
ran short of sugar during the greatest dearth. The
cakes were the equal of those of a patisserie on the
Boulevard des Capucines. And there everybody met to
talk about the war and the heat and the flies ; cursing
all three impartially and wondering if we were ever to
be delivered from any of them. Dusty and sweating
officers came in from up-country — the nearer up-country
of those days — and told terrific tales of the heat and
discomforts in the camps in the outer marches of the

22



WHEN THE B.S.F. WAS YOUNG

'^Birdcage." They were full of stories of their shopping
experiences in town ; of the poor quality of the mer-
chandise ; the impossibility of finding anything they
really wanted ; the tricks of the local Greeks and Jews,
and the exactions of the larger shops, who put on all
the airs of great departmental stores, but provided very
little for a lot of money. Subalterns said, "Damn these
confounded drachmas ; I haven't got the hang of them
yet." All our lives we had lived in a gold country, and
it was hard to realise that these wisps of paper, many
of them extremely dirty, really represented money.
Partly, but not entirely, for this reason, they were
thrown about with a negligent air, and the local shop-
keepers benefited accordingly. A pound Greek note
was spent with less than half the concern with which
a golden sovereign would have been disbursed, and five
drachmae, or a little over four shillings, became the unit
of exchange. It was hard to imagine a purchase costing
less than that. And in this atmosphere of fluttering
notes and the smoke from a thousand cigarettes, with
the long ventilator propellers revolving monotonously
overhead, the Greek waiters wormed their way tirelessly
in and out of the serried ranks of customers, summoned
by impatient and insistent " psss-ss-ts " and answering
with cries of " all right, sair." There were lavish tips
on the tables, and money to be made out of these
hot British officers, who had the curious habit of drink-
ing tea, or sitting round ices like schoolboys in a ttick
shop.

Everything that happened in Macedonia (and a good
many things that didn't happen) was discussed in
Floca's. It was the only common meeting-place, the


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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 2 of 23)