H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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Forum of the Allied Armies. Secret agents sat there,
and spies — an excellent arrangement for the hunters
and the hunted to be in easy touch. There were bluff



skippers from trawlers and mine-sweepers, desti'oyer
commanders back from convoy to Alexandria or else-
where ; navy men of all degrees ; padres who looked like
warriors, and occasional warriors who looked like
padres. One heard stories of submarine encounters, and
other matters of palpitating interest. And yet, looking
back on it all, it is extraordinary how little that really
mattered was said. The British officer, naval or mili-
tary, is an extremely close person about his job. You
may know him extremely well, but he talks of little or
nothing beyond generalities. I often used to wonder
how the poor spies managed to get along, and where
they got their information. It must be dreadfully
annoying to sit in a cafe, buzzing with hundreds of
interesting conversations, all jumbled up like a great
jig-saw puzzle, and to be able to seize nothing from the
mass. But of course messieurs les espions had their own
methods, and Salonica, with its mixture of races, was a
particularly favourable town for their operations. They
were of all classes and grades, and in the earlier days
German agents of all kinds moved freely amongst us.
We had to employ a good deal of native labour, of every
nationality, and at the docks, where tlie ships came in
with their cargoes of lorries, aeroplanes, guns, and every
kind of material of war, the enemy agents of the smaller
calibres swarmed. Towards the end of 1916, owing to
the increasingly dubious attitude of King Constantine,
we had to send a brigade down the coast to Ekaterini
to guard against a possible attack in the rear. The
troops were not sufficient for the purpose if Constantine
had really launched his Army, but something had to be
done, and there was a good deal in shov/ing that you
are alert to a possible danger. I remember the remarks
of an officer at the docks on this embarkation. "Those
ruddy old spies were absolutely tumbling over each



other," he said. "It made me laugh to see them at
work ; they hadn't had a tit-bit like this since we came
to Salonica. We didn't worry. We let them get on
with it. They reported that two British divisions were
being sent down the coast, and that suited us all
right." I suppose that so long as a spy may be made to
work for you like this he should be tolerated and even

There was always somebody to see and talk to at
Floca's, providing you could squeeze in. But one soon
found that the struggle to obtain a cup of tea at the
cafe was too exhausting to be made a daily task.
Gradually the tea habit was introduced at the club. It
was a relief to escape from the grilling office or the
crowded streets for an hour, and to sit in its cool, big
room, with the comfortable easy chairs made in Eng-
land. How many subalterns, after a spell of three or
four months in the heat of tents or dug-outs up-country,
have I seen sink into those deep easy chairs with a
luxurious, "By Gad, this is comfort again." Blessed
be the British habit of founding clubs. The most melan-
choly thing about the Great Fire was that it destroyed
this haven, along with so much else.

The memory of dinner on the first night I arrived in
Salonica will never fade. With a friend I went to the
Olympos Restaurant. The big room was full ; people
were shouting, "pssst-sst-ing" and clapping hands at
the waiters. It was almost like dining in a menagerie.
And in the midst of the tumult my friend bent over and
shouted in my ear, "You see that dark, handsome man
at the next table, with the strong, hawk-like profile ?
That's the feller who assassinated Mahmoud Shefket

Oh the intense joy of it ! I was a little hazy as to

* See Note at end of Chapter.



how Mahmoud Shefket Pasha had been done to death,
but the point was that I was in Salonica where notorious
and handsome assassins moved about unmolested and
sat at the next table. This was romance and adventure
if ever there was ! I saw the handsome assassin every
day, in the club playing backgammon, or elsewhere. In
a week I was pointing him out proudly to newcomers
who were duly impressed with my intimate knowledge
of the sinister life of the Near East. And then, after
a while, I became used to the assassin, and ceased to
take any notice of him. Shortly afterwards he disap-
peared from circulation and was seen no more. But
whether he really was the assassin of Mahmoud Shefket
Pasha I never knew.

Note. — As the campaign wore on our counter-espionage work, which
was run by the Intelligence Branch of the General Staff, developed
greatly, and became extremely efficient. Owing to the rugged nature
of Macedonia, and to the large tracts of wild country which existed
behind our lines, it was for a long time a comparatively easy matter
for enemy agents to cross from the Bulgar territory to our own, and
back again. They posed as peasants and shepherds, or perhaps really
were peasants or shepherds, and could be Turk, Greek or Bulgar at
will. From Salonica, up through our own country, and into Bulgaria,
these chains of spies ran. Conditions were extremely favourable to
them, but although we may never have stamped the organisation out
absolutely it became a very difficult and dangerous business for the
spy. Occasionally there would be an execution, somewhere behind the
Struma, and a grim procession would start out on a long journey,
the Corps A. P.M. and his mounted policemen in attendance taking
a white-faced Turk (sitting in a mule limber or a Ford car) to his
native village, there to be shot before the head-man and all the rest
of the village who cared to attend — and most of them did. The
chief routes used by these enemy agents were across or near the
Butkova and Tahinos Lakes, in the Struma Valley, and over the
valley which was bounded on our side by the Krusha Balkans and
on the enemy side by the Beles or Belashitza range. As one way of
preventing this traffic we organised several comitadji bands of our
own, composed of picturesque creatures swathed in cartridge belts,
who loved their rifles as a mother loves her baby. They were swash-
buckling individuals who hated shell fire, but were fairly efficient at
the class of work they were intended for. Some of them could not
drop their ingrained habits, even when working under the British
flag, and were quite capable of extracting monev from a well-to-do
Turkish farmer under the threat of denouncing him as a §py. But
on the whole they did their work fairly well, and earned the rations
and the pav we provided for them.



Salonica Nights.

Following on the first advance up to Serbia, and the
subsequent retreat, there came the long hill of prepara-
tion, and it was not until the burning months of June
and July that the Allied Armies moved out from the
line of the "Birdcage" to get in closer touch with the
Bulgars, who were by now well established on their
formidable line of mountains, at no place nearer than
forty-five or fifty miles from the metropolis of Mace-
donia. On one of the last days of May, 1916, I hap-
pened to be a short distance up-countty along the
Langaza Valley. One of the battalions which had been
holding the line of hills there, some eight or ten miles
outside of Salonica, had organised an assault-at-arms,
and I was invited to see the fun. There was a marquee
with refreshments, and everything went off splendidly.
But in the middle of the sports the 10th Division began
to file past, on their way to take up the line on the far
Struma. It was a blistering hot day, and the men with
their heavy packs had marched down from the high
plateau just under Mount Hortiach. They marched
slowly past in a cloud of dust, every man looking at the
trim enclosure of the sports ground, with its marquee
and chairs and general look of happiness. The Tenth
had come from Gallipoli, and already had experience of
what a Balkan winter could be. And as they walked
past now, beads of sweat hanging big on the face of
every man and the dust swirling about their feet, they


gave us the first real hint of what campaigning in a
Balkan summer was likely to be. It was a strange
contrast; the happy and comparatively cool battalion
at play and the baked and dusty men of the Division
on the march.

In the succeeding weeks and months the British took
up their general line on the right, or east, of the front
along the malarial Struma Valley to the sea ; and with
the French had some brisk hill fighting in the region of
Doiran, where the Allies wrested a series of important
positions from the enemy. The French occupied the
centre, from the Vardar westwards, and the Serbs took
up the line from the left of the French on towards Mon-
astir. And on July 30th the first of the Russians came.
That was a wonderful morning. They marched up the
Place de la Liberti eight abreast, their bayonets on their
long rifles ; magnificent looking men, whose firm tread,
in their heavy boots, seemed to make the earth shake.
Here, one felt, was the might of the Czar, with his in-
exhaustible legions. Here was Great Russia, with her
boundless primitive strength allied to the civilisation of
the West. As the men marched they occasionally broke
out into wonderful and inspiring chants. The Balkan
campaign promised well as they tramped These,
no doubt, were but the forerunners of many more.
Roumania was coming in from the north. The enemy
would be pinched like a nut between crackers. . . .
Alas, that the tragedy of the Romanoffs was to dash
these and many greater hopes, and the Balkan Front
was to have its echo of the melancholy collapse of the
Russian giant, so that good soldiers suddenly became
worthless, and the local newspaper in Russian, which
had been started for the troops, gently appealed to the
men to salute their officers again, as they had done
before !


Twelve days later the first of the Italians arrived,
Alpini and Bersaglieri amongst them — fine looking
troops who drove the Italian inhabitants mad with
joy. And gradually, in the never-ceasing heat and dust,
the line of the Allies was formed far away beyond the
line of the "Birdcage" — French, British, Serbs,
Italians and Russians taking up their posts over moun-
tain and valley in a continuous trench line across more
than half of the Balkan Peninsula.

And while this was being done, and the men of so
many nations were scratching out their temporary
homes amid the wastes of Macedonia, the capital pur-
sued its life of feverish ar*ivity ; a city of merchants
and shopkeepers exacting all the profits they could
from the opportunity the great occasion presented, and
a city of soldiers working and organising ceaselessly for
the men up at the front, or snatching — during their
moments of leisure or their occasional visits to the
town — at any pleasure that presented itself ; and
Heaven knows it was illusory and unsatisfying enough.

Salonica's cafes, cabarets, cafe chantants, cinemas
and music halls did a roaring trade in those days. There
were plenty of them, but there were never quite enough
for the thousands of strangers who were within the
gates of the city; all of them men who, in this unpleas-
ing seaport of the Mgean, felt acutely that they were
exiles and were only too anxious to try and forget it.
Throughout it was a feverish, make-believe pleasure
which never rang true. One always felt, even in the
noisiest, most uproarious moments — and there was
never any lack of them — that if some voice had sud-
denly called out, "This is all vain and false. There is
not one man who is happy and amused with all this
tawdry nonsense. Let every man who is sick at heart
with it, and has no joy in it, walk out" — one felt that



in such case tlie aalle de spectacle would have emptied
immediately, and that the soubrettes with the
mechanical gestures and the harsh or squeaky songs
about nothing in particular, would immediately have
heard the terrible sound of their own voices in the
silence that succeeded to the tumult.

But after all, what would you have men do who are
engaged in the enterprise of war, which is so often bor-
ing when it is not dangerous; and who came down to
town for three days after living in a trench in the
wilderness, or were on earth again after flying through
the white puffs from the enemy's anti-aircraft guns ?
There is not much room for philosophy when a respite
is offered from the boredom or peril of war, and so
Salonica's bastard Montmartre flourished. There was
very little that was harmful about it — not more than
usual, at any rate.

The Odeon, the White Tower, the Skating Rink —
these are names that will live long in the memories of
the men who were in Macedonia. The Odeon, which
w^ent with the fire, was one of the chief centres of gaiety
in the old days. It had a certain elegance of design,
rather like a miniature Co vent Garden Opera House.
It was oval in shape, and three tiers of boxes ran round
it, each one filled with vociferous Allied Officers. If it
were possible to award a palm for lung power I think
it would be given to a prominent group of young French
Flying Officers. But everybody was much the same
and, dinner over at the various restaurants, the groups
of Allied Officers filed in, twos and fours and sixes,
arguing at the box office and paying heavily to assist
at a performance which they never by any chance
allowed to be audible. For the recognised thing to do
in these halls of delight and amusement was to make such
a terrible noise and clatter, such a vacarme de tous les



diables^ that no word could be heard from the stage.
One by one the ladies of the stage walked on, waved
their arms in a uniform fashion, which suggested they
had all passed through the same drill squad, and sang
about Heaven knows what. Most of the songs came
from the Paris cabaret's, but they might have been in
Choctaw or Senegalese. Meanwhile great fim went on
in the boxes. Bottles were lowered up and down on
the end of strings ; caps were lassooed and recovered ;
a perspiring waiter was made prisoner; box called to
box ; the ladies of the establishment, relentlessly plying
their commerce of selling the expensive champagne of
the proprietor, darted about with shrill cries and laugh-
ter, always with an eye to business ; and the members of
the orchestra sawed away, quite accustomed to it all
and quite indifferent as to whether or not their fiddles
were heard. Occasionally from sheer exhaustion there
would come a lull. This was not to be tolerated. Some-
body would beat his cane on the wooden side of a box.
The chorus would be taken up, and a more terrible
sound than the noisy uproar of the human voice would

This method of making the most of a performance
was common to all the music halls of Salonica, though
in the open-air entertainment, which was given in the
White Tower grounds in the warm summer evenings,
the audience was much quieter. Such human ebullience
is only possible within four walls and a roof, and is
rebuked by the calm heavens. And here and there one
found a magic touch which always calmed the tempest,
like oil on water. One of these was a young person who
was always allowed to "do her bit*' in comparative
peace. Her act was as stereotyped and mechanical
and unartistic as anything could be imagined. But she
was dainty and pleasing to look upon, and she "got



off" her song with a smile and a rush, and in two
minutes, still with a smile, had disappeared. She had
only one song, and tlie refrain of it was : —

" J'ai besoin dii calmant
Pour mon temperament.
Donnez m'en, donnez m'en, donnez m'en!"

The smile, a flick of skirts, and she was gone. She
attached herself to a local Greek army contractor, who
had made a quick fortune by selling hay or something
of the kind, gave up the triumphs and fatigues of the
stage, and rode about Salonica in a carriage. She had
apparently found a balm for her temperament.

Then there was Polly. It is not her name, but it will
do. She dominated a raging audience as a dompteur
dominates his cage of forest bred lions. She was plump
and rounded, and a Union Jack graced one of her at-
tractive curves. And in her own sphere she did the
Old Flag honour. Polly was a product of the Manches-
ter School of stage dancing, which has sent its devotees,
generally in troupes of four or eight, to ever>' music
hall in the universe. They are all of them thoroughly
capable, and with their skilful twinkling of toes and
legs leave the Continental product far behind. Polly
had seen many stages in Europe and the Near East. I
think the Army found her at Salonica, and I heard
people say they had seen her dancing at Bucharest and
Constantmople quite a long time ago. (They begin
very young.) And Polly would bound on to the stage
when the noise was in full blast. Her appearance
brought, if possible, a louder volume of uproar. Per-
fectly cool and self-possessed, Polly would twinkle about
with her feet, occasionally uttering a peculiar call, diffi-
cult to reproduce in writing, which was taken up by the
audience. She never hurried. She could wait until the
noise had ceased. Then sure enough the calm would
come, and Polly would begin her song and dance.



Latterly her song was always "Blighty." When
first I heard it on the gramophone somewhere in Mace-
donia, I thought it the most vulgar and unpleasing song
I had ever heard. But if you are a long time away from
home it grows on one wonderfully. It ends by becom-
ing a tender chanson which twangs the heart sttings a
little. It may sound absurd, but

'* Tiddley, iddley, itey,
Take me back to Blighty,
Blighty is the place for me,"

have been lines of poetry and music, stirring the ten-
derest sentiments, to many thousands of our men away
at the war. It voiced a desire which was nearest and
dearest to the hearts of all. Polly would end with some
skilful and pleasing dance, a final call of "Ya-oup"
(that is the nearest our spelling can get to it), and a
farewell, nonchalant wave of the hand that put ever}'^-
body in their places. We always wanted more of her.

Then there was "Tipperary." It also had great power
to quell the storm. The orchestra had only to strike
up with it and everybody would wait for the chorus to
join in. I have seen British, French, Serbs, Italians,
Russians and Greeks singing it together, and singing it
with a real touch of seriousness ; as a rite, something
that stirred the finer feelings. What words they all put
to the refrain one never knows.

And then, finally, there was "Madelon," perhaps
the finest song of the war; certainly to be bracketed
with "Tipperary." At first I used to wonder what it
was that swept all the Frenchmen present into one
channel of song and made them pass from mere noise
to harmony. The artiste who sang it had a sinecure.
The last joyous line of "Madelon, Madelon, Madelon !"
sounded like "March along, march along, march

as 9


along!" And it was only when on a visit to the
Serbian front that I happyened to secure the words. It
was at a Brigade Headquarters, about 4,500 feet up in
the snow. We were on a parallel and neighbouring slope
to Sokol, from whence started the triumphant offensive
of September, 1918. We had lunched royally, and the
"pibce de resistance had been a noble dish of wild boar,
the gentleman who provided it having been shot some-
where near-by a few days before. And after lunch,
while we drank many sweet coffees in the little hut built
into the mountain side and an occasional Bulgar shell
droned overhead, a young Serbian lieutenant of artil-
lery produced his violin. He played very well, and it
was not long before he had switched into "La Made-
Ion," and one could see the pleasure it gave him to play
it, up there in the quiet of the snows. This particular
young man, a student of philosophy at Vienna, had
been in the field practically without a break for six
years. No doubt he had his own thoughts of his native
Belgrade as he played.

Probably one can buy the song of "La Madelon"
everywhere now. But for those who do not happen to
have met it, one may say that it is all about a pretty
serving wench at a cabaret "Aux Tourlouroux," fre-
quented by the poilus. And as each soldier takes his
wine from her he thinks of his own sweetheart, and says
to Madelon some of the things he is saving up for "the
other." It is made quite clear that although Madelon
is not "severe" and can take a joke from all of them,
she is quite good. As she says : —

" Why content myself with one,
When all the regiment is my own? "

The poilvs too are actuated by the best of motives.
And they all sing in refrain : —



" Quand Madelon vient nous servir k boire
Sous la tonnelle, on frole sa jupon
Et chacun lui reconte une histoire,
Une histoire k sa facon.
La Madelon pour nous n'est pas s^v^re
Quand on lui prend la taille on le menton
Elle rit, c'est tout le mal qu'elle sait faire,
Madelon, Madelon, Madelon ! ! ! "

It is certainly the most lilting refrain of the war.
"Tipperary" has its strong dash of melancholy; very
charming, but melancholy all the same. *'La Madelon"
is swinging and joyous, and warms the cockles of your
heart ; it sounds like red wine and, when the song is
heard, one can see the soldiers drinking it at the tables
under a shady "tunnel" in the garden of a cabaret in
France. And after a Salonica audience of Frenchmen
had sung that refrain it was always easy to see that
it was as good as a promise of leave to them. Their
eyes shone, there was a new spring in their gestures,
and they turned to drink their thin Salonica beer with
an air which said that life was still good, and that in
spite of the " sacree guerre " they were going to make
the best of it.

It is wonderful, this evocative power of song, whether
for joy or melancholy. I have seen innumerable in-
stances of it in camps up and down Macedonia. The
emotions are always very near the surface, especially
in the case of men who have all been away from home
for a long time, as was the general rule with the Salonica
Army. Most of us rather looked down on the gramo-
phone before the war. But what a wonderful differ-
ence it has made to the life of hundreds of thousands of
exiles ; how overwhelmingly, during the war, has it
justified its invention. A bored half-dozen people are
sitting round a mess table talking of malaria or sand-fly
fever, or the absence of cheese from the rations, or some
other unpleftsamtnesft ; somebody turns on the gramo-



phone and the voice of Mr. Robey, tinny but recog-
nisable, uttering some fatuous nonsense, is heard. A
smile goes round. Distance is annihilated, quicker than
by wireless. Everybody is at once in Leicester Square,
or walking up to Piccadilly Circus just before the dinner
hour. London may not be quite all one fancied when
away. But how keen becomes the longing to see it,
and certain people in it !

I remember one night, at a small headquarters' mess
on the picturesque hills overlooking the Struma Valley.
The gramophone had been going for some time. And
then from out of it a sweet woman's voice sang "My
Ain Folk." Everybody there had been away
from home for at least two years, and some
for over three. The pathos and appeal of
the song were almost too much. It hurt. The
night outside was as beautiful as an autumn night
of full moon in the Balkans can be. The peace and
beauty of the hills under the moonlight intensified that
sentiment aroused by the gramophone, the longing for
one's "ain folk" . . . And perhaps it was just as well
that just then, up in the silver blue vault, the hum of a
German aeroplane was heard. In a few moments it
had arrived over the camp. There was a sudden, dis-
quieting whistle of something coming down and then
a flash and a bang, somewhere close by in the brush
that covered the hills. Again the horrible w^histle, and
another flash and bang. And then the Hun above
turned his gim on the camp, which in the moonlight
must have looked singularly pretty. Pap-pap-pap-pap-
pap-pap-pap-pap, etc. In a few moments he had passed
on. He had not stayed long, but he had thoroughly
conjured away an attack of sentiment which, though
very charming in a melancholy way, is really not a
healthy bftd-fellorw.

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 3 of 23)