H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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But to return to our Salonica Nights Entertainments.
One could go on for quite a long time describ-
ing our artistes and their ways, although they changed
but little in three years. There was the plump Italian
lady who always appeared with a horrible little dwarf ;
the Roumanian family, who danced indefatigably, and
whose father was a strong man of swelling proportions
(people used to call laughingly from the audience,
" Why don't you join the Army ?") ; also Lolotte, who
danced strange lascivious eastern dances, and whose
"turn" was in no way disturbed by the uproar; tlie
Italian girl with a terrible squint but who sang well,
and later transferred to the Greek Opera troupe from
Athens ; the chuckling nigger, who had a kind face, and
could twist himself into all sort's of knots — these and
many more ; performers of third or fourth class merit,
all of them, but who served their turn. They under-
stood perfectly well their role in the life of Salonica,
and probably would have been very m.uch disconcerted
if they had suddenly found themselves before a quiet
and attentive audience.

And after all this talk of noise and boisterousness,
perhaps it will be as well to correct any false impression
which may have been caused. First of all, it was all
so much blowing off steam. Nobody who participated
took it seriously ; it was merely the cloak that hid other
feelings. Then again, with all the noise, the orderliness
was remarkable. With all these audiences of mixed
nationalities, giving vent to their high spirits, there was
hardly even an ugly or unpleasing incident. It would
not have been very surprising had there been. We were
all Allies, it is true, but everywhere there slumbered
small prejudices or criticisms which were inevitable in
such a mixed team as we had in Macedonia. But they
very rarely raised their tousled little heads in the music



halls, even in the heat of false excitement. And one
may digress for a moment to pay a tribute to the or-
derliness and good behaviour in Salonica tliroughout
our sojourn there. There were five strange
ai-mies in the place, but during the war
crime and disorder in the town were generally
at an absolute minimum, although at night
there were occasionally unpleasant incidents on the
Lembet Road, and early in 1919 there was a disquieting
outbreak of lawlessness at night. But the general con-
duct was marvellously good. I am insular enough to
think that the calm British presence and example had
its share in this ; there is little doubt indeed that the
British constituted the cement which kept the diversi-
fied Balkan Army together. Our very uniformity bred
this general feeling of confidence. One British officer
looked like all other British officers ; one British soldier
looked like all his fellows ; one motor lorry looked like
all the rest. To the foreign eye there is little or no
difference in any of us. A Briton is just a Briton. We
may not realise it ourselves, but we are a very strongly
marked type. I remember once, after living a year in
Paris, finding myself in the Strand and suddenly, for
just a moment and with the eye of a foreigner, seeing
the English type of face. A trifle hard and severe,
perhaps, but one that inspires confidence and respect.
It was possible in that illuminating moment to realise
whence the foreign caricaturist gets his root idea of us,
which, of course, he distorts for his own purposes. And
Salonica at first thought we were merely stiff and un-
flexible, but soon realised that this was only the very
beginning of us and that a good deal lay behind. . . .
How many fulsome compliments did we hear in the later
days ! The reader must try and pardon this small essay
on trumpet blowing. We did mighty little of it during



the war. A little now that the great fight is over will
do no harm ; in fact, just a little more of it will be found
later on in the book.

We had entertainments of quite another class. There
was the operetta company from Athens, which played
"The Dollar Princess," and many other light musical
works, in Greek. The performance usually began at
ten, and continued till one in the morning. The leading
lady was an imperious beauty — in her own Greek style
— from Athens, and during a short period she almost
became a toast. Many suitors sought her hand, but
like Madelon she did not believe in attaching herself
to one, and kept them all dangling very cleverly. One
young officer is known to have said, enthusiastically,
"I am one of four who are allowed to send her
presents !" It was a dubious privilege, as he found out.
Again we quite often had excellent concerts in the town,
gala affairs in aid of charities, which were attended by
the various Allied generals. Between them the Allied
Armies could provide sufficient talent to make a pro-
gramme of the highest class. And finally there was the
extraordinary development of entertainments within
the British Army itself. But this is too interesting a
subject to be dismissed here, and we will return to it



A Day in Town.

Everything in this life, or presumably any other, is
relative. The soldier whose lot it was, pleasant or other-
wise, to work in Salonica thought of leave only as a
journey home to England. But the soldier up the line
had a different point of view. Leave for Home was a
thing hardly to be dreamed of. But for the officer
there was always the possibility of leave to Salonica,
although it was not until late in the campaign that it
was possible to bring parties of men down, and some
of these saw their first town for two and a half years.

The man who lived in Salonica might sometimes
wonder why on earth anybody should ever want to get
leave to visit it. But the man up-country had no doubts
on the point. On a number of occasions, after an
absence of a week or ten days up-country, I have myself
been pleasantly excited to enter the town again, and
see people once more, and tramcars and shops. And
it was therefore easy to imagine the joy of officers up)-
countrj'^ who, after four or six months in the wilderness,
with perhaps a squalid little village as the highest mark
of civilisation, came down to town with three days'

They made the very most of it, like schoolboys in the
first flush of a holiday. And yet their trip to town
always had its duties and responsibilities. Each officer
so favoured always came down with a long list of com-
missions to be executed for his battalion, so that the



first two of his three days in town were generally filled
up with tramping up and down the uneven cobbles in
quest of things for others. And it was remarkable how
faithfully and painstakingly this sort of thing was
always done.

For long the weekly journals at home, humorous and
otherwise, were filled with little articles describing the
joys or trials of our officers and men coming home to
England for a few days' leave. The story always began
at Armentieres, or "The Salient," or some equally
famous spot, and finished up at Victoria. Exactly
the same incidents were common to the life of our men
out in Macedonia, with only local differences, but
Bairnsfather has not limned them nor have contribu-
tors to "Punch" let their fancy play on them. France
overshadowed all, and for the average reader at home
"Leave" meant a trip across the Channel in the Bou-
logne boat. They could not imagine that large numbers
of their countrymen sat on barren hills just short of
Doiran, or in the malarial plain of the Struma, and
looked with much longing towards a higgledy-piggledy
city of the Mgean, some fifty miles away. Victoria did
not enter their thoughts. It was out of the question —
reserved only for those lucky people who campaigned
in France. Salonica represented all that there was to
hand of civilisation and, if you like, joie de vivre. It
was a ix>or enough substittite, but the very most was
made of it on the rare occasions when those of the front-
line could visit it.

Out in Macedonia the first throb of excitement came,
say, on Tortue Hill, just below the sinister Grand
Couronn^, or at some outpost of ours on the plain facing
the Rupel Pass. In the one case it meant a long ride
to the railway, and then a tedious all-night journey in
the train ; in the other, a ride to the 70th Kilometre



stone on the Seres Road, thence to be carried all the
way down to Salonica in a lorry. But in either case the
result was the same. A tired and dusty officer presen-
ted himself at the pretentious Hotel Splendide and
demanded of the best they had in bath, breakfast and
bedroom. And what matter if the prices were those of
the world's best hotels ? No niggard regard for the
value of money ever spoiled a three days' leave in

Bath and breakfast made a new man of our subal-
tern. Forgotten for three whole days were the dusty
tracks, the stony nullahs, the mule transport, the bully
beef, the chlorinated water, the eternal Bulgarian
mountains, rumbling to the sound of the guns, and the
unpleasant night patrols "up there." The world was
his and all that was in it. There were pavements to
walk upon — very uneven and dirty, but stUl pavements.
There were women to be seen in the streets, even ladies,
and all sorts of people who did not wear khaki. There
were shops to buy things in, and girls who served them,
who spoke quaint, quickly-learned English. And at the
White Tower Restaurant there was an orchestra, and
a big pleasure garden sort of place, with a few trees
in it ; and when on the summer nights everybody dined
outside, with lights on the tables, and the well-to-do
bourgeoisie of Salonica sat there with their ample and
liquid-eyed ladies — well, it was not at all a bad sort of
place, and helped to tide over many a man who ached
for the long-lost and perhaps magnified delights of

Behold our visitor, then, his puttees beautifully
wrapped, or his field boots magnificently polished,
starting out to conquer Salonica as though it were Picca-
dilly. At ten o'clock on a summer morning Salonica
may seem a beautiful place. The clear air sparkles,



but it is not yet hot. Over the way (that is, fifty miles
down the Gulf) the high crest of Olympus, with a patch
of snow still on it, shines like a jewel. There is a hint
of breeze in the air, and the picturesque caiques (scores
and scores of them lined up against the sea wall) are
bobbing about at their moorings, where the local mer-
chants are in attendance, discharging their cargoes of
rude pottery or charcoal or big golden melons, fresh
from the Islands. The streets are alive with excitement,
and there is much to look at and be interested in, after
four months in a nullah. A staff car flashes past, with
two impressive and impassive figures in it. "Lucky
beggars," our subaltern thinks — but for the moment
would not change places with them. A dozen dirty little
loustros call out for the honour of polishing his polished
boots : "Hey, Johnny, Mister, shine." (From General
to Private we were all Johnnies to the Macedonian.)
But he passes on, knowing well that his boots are
beyond reproach now, even though in an hour's time
the dust will have removed all their sparkle. Past him
on the cobbled sea-front a constant stream of traffic is
moving, chiefly military. There are tram-cars, too,
with the local populace hanging from them in clusters.
In one motor car that passes there are two nurses who
have been given a lift on their way into town from one
of the hospitals outside, and whose eyes are sparkling
with pleasure and excitement as the car rushes them
along. One of them is decidedly pretty, and our subal-
tern's breast heaves a httle with all sorts of unexpressed
emotions. Life down at the Base ! By Jove, how lucky
some people are ! But that afternoon he himself has
an appointment for tea out at one of the hospitals,
there to meet someone who, as he sits in his nullah
at the front, seems infinitely fair and pleasing, and per-
haps vies in his thoughts with the image of another



one, who is so far and so long away in England that
it seems impossible that he will ever see her again. He
may not be quite in love twice over, but it seems very
much like it as he looks forward to the afternoon tea.

But before that there is business to be done. His
steps lead him up the Place de la Liberte and so through
the covered bazaar into tihe Rue Egnatia — a stretch of
the famous Via Egnatia which St. Paul trod and which
now, as our. hero walks along its uneven cobbles, is one
of the most noisy, crowded and varied streets of the
universe. The strip of colour on his shoulder-strap
shows the Division he belongs to, and each British
soldier who meets him in the street salutes very smartly
— a little nuance of extra tribute to the man from up
the Line. Twice our hero has to skip quickly to avoid
being crushed by a tram-car. Lorries come crashing
along, and the bent native porters, with immense loads
of all kinds on their backs, narrowly escape the fate of
the foolish tortoises, which on summer days wander
lazily across the Macedonian roads and are flattened
out by our lorries. At Piccadilly Circus (that is what
we at once called it and what many of the natives now
call it) the congestion is tremendous. Here one broad
highway comes down from the Struma front, the famous
Seres Road, and another comes down from the Monastir
region. East meets West here, if you like. Piccadilly
Circus is on the edge of the city, and every variety of
Balkan peasant and gipsy is marketing there, and buy-
ing all sorts of funny things to eat from trays that stand
just off the main stream of traffic. British military
policemen, majestic and amazingly competent, sort
out the tangle, always just one second ahead of chaos.
There is nobody like the British M.P.

A few yards along the Monastir Road and the visitor
arrives at the E.F. Canteen. He has a long list of all


Salonica in the days of

the AlHes. A Section of
the crowd listening to the
French Band in the Place
de la Liberte.


Some of the
who work-
ed for the
British in
the Struma

Photo: Lieut. Lafontaine.


sorts of dainties and necessaries required by the Mess,
and patiently takes his place in a queue until he can be
served. Ideal Milk, cigarettes, some towels, a case ot
gin (very important), vermouth (equally important),
a case of whisky (absolutely vital), some gramophone
records with something from "Chu Chin Chow" if possi-
ble, chocolate, soap, some safety razor blades — and two
dozen other things. But perhaps it is a bad time for
stocks. The U boats have been unusually busy in the
Mediterranean. The man behind the counter takes the
list and looks at it with a gloomy eye. "None of that,
sir . . . None of this." "What, no Gold Flake cigar-
ettes ?" gasps the visitor, in something like consterna-
tion ! What is life up at the front without the tang of
the admirable "stinker!" Verily, the humble Virginia
cigarette, so despised at one time of all well-dressed
young men, has also done its bit during the war.

But so far as means will allow, the list is made up
and paid for, and our hero arranges that he will call for
the packages in a "gharry" on the day of his departure.
Then with a heavy load off his mind, but wondering a
little what the Mess President will say about the things
he didn't get, he turns his thoughts to lunch. There
are still many other commissions to be done, but those
can wait.

A passing car opportunely gives him a lift, and in
five minutes he is near the ^^Tiite Tower. The correct
thing to do is to lunch at the French Club, and he will
have to be quick to obtain a ticket.*

* The French Club was an admirable institution. Its only fault
was that it was not big enough for all who would go there. It was
opened in 1917 and was immediately assaulted by Allied officers. It
served better food, and at much cheaper prices, than anywhere else
in town. Many people wondered why we did not liave a British
Club, and such an institution was often talked about long before our
A Hies opecied theirs. But the idea was never taken up. The Salonica


Luckily he is successful in securing one of the last
tickets for the second service. He has half an hour in
hand. The club is situated pleasantly on the edge of
the sea, and has a charming Uttle garden, executed in
a scheme of bamboo decorations and sun shelters, by
almond-eyed French Annamites. Here cocktails may
be bought, and the blue sea laps pleasantly near the
tables. He soon finds half a dozen acquaintances, all
of them like himself possessed of the Freedom of
Salonica for two or three days. . . The single cocktail
becomes several. It is in the happiest frame of mind
that he answers the bell and sits down to lunch. The
big room shakes with conversation. Everybody is
there ; French officers with many medals, Greeks be-
longing to the Army of National Defence of Mr. Venize-
los, with their ribbons all of sky blue colour. . . .

Afternoon finds him at Uchantar, seven miles out
from the town on the slopes of the first barrier of hills.
Here, at one of the General Hospitals, lives the young

Army had been given a foolishly bad name, and perhaps it was that
the aiithorities thought that a campaign which was described as a
" picnic " by idiots at home could not afford to give itself the Iuxur\
of a club and restaurant at the Base where officers could eat wefl
without being swindled. Our own Rest House was not opened until
long afterwards, when the immense destruction of hotels and res-
taurants caused by the fire made it imperative that we should have
a centre of our own. But as far as the provision of meals is con-
cerned, it was on nothing like such a big scale as the French
establishment. Sometimes the French felt that they were being
crowded out of their own club. But, after all, who can run a res-
taurant like the French? And again, did not British ships, through-
out the whole campaign, carry every ton of beef that went to feed
all the Allied armies in Macedonia? Week in, week out, the me^t
ships came in, carrying over from Port Said the Australian beef
which kept five Allied armies going. Two hundred tons a day they
delivered at the heierht of the campaign, in spite of the submarines.
Ourselves we thoutrht about it little enough, and probably our various
Allies never thoucrht about it at all. Tt was just one small, odd scrap
of Britain's immense contribution to the war. Where does beef come
from? Oh, ask the White and Red Ensigns. . . . .\nd so, in this
little mjitter of the restaurant we may fairly say that matters were



lady to whom he has more or less given his heart. She
is delighted to see her hero — and it is a detail that she
has another up the Line. There are other sisters and
officers present, and there is a merry party on a slope
of the hillside overlooking a mangifieent panorama —
the harbour far away, looking like a pool with tiny
ships on it ; tJhe picturesque crest of Hortiach away to
the east. Between them and the sea is a vast expanse
of hillock and plain, dotted all over with hundreds of
camps. Through it runs the Seres Road, the greatest
artery of the British communications, bearing its daily
burden of lorries and ambulances. And far away to the
south across the Gulf, towers great Olympus, looking
infinitely more majestic from this height than from
the quays of Salonica. There is a blush of pink on its
snowy crest. It is the herald of one of those glorious
sunsets which make Macedonia magical ; which come
so often with the peace and calm of evening, and seem
to compensate for the heat and dust of the day ; which
made it possible, indeed, for many thousands of our
people to "carry on" and draw from evening the neces-
sary strength and resolution for the morrow. The little
group sits quietly, looking on at the wonderful scene.
Individual thoughts are busy and they are all turned
inwards. They are conjuring up visions of Surbiton,
of Piccadilly Circus (the real one), of a summer's even-
ing up the Thames — or of a hundred other pleasant
spots at home you may like to name.

" Curious that we should all be sitting here looking
at a sunset behind old Olympus," remarks somebody.
It is a thought that often recurs — that English people
should be gathered together like this in a land which a
few years before some of them had never even heard of.

The party breaks up. The sisters have their work to
do. There nre a thousand and more patients to look



after — malaria, dysentery, sand-fly fever, P.U.O., and
other things — and they cannot wait on sunsets.

So our hero drops down to town again in a motor car
which he has "scrounged" for the afternoon from an
accommodating M.T. Officer. The peace of the last
half-hour up there on the hillside has brushed him
lightly with melancholy. He feels that Ufe should be
composed of gentle things. And it is not pleasant to
leave Her. . . But town approaches, and his spirits
rise a little with it. After all, she is coming to have tea
at Floca's with him on his last day. The bustle of
Piccadilly Circus dispels the last whiffs of his melan-
choly. He returns the salutes of the M.P.'s feeling how
good it is to be sitting alone in a nice big car.

At the French Club he meets a party of friends for
cocktails. Afterwards they all dine in a box at the
White Tower Restaurant. It is a merry party.
There is champagne. Blow the expense ! In
the middle of it^ the orchestra strikes up with
its usual nightly medley of Scotch airs and dances.
Instantly the restaurant is filled with those horri-
ble noises which all Anglo-Saxons feel called upon
to make when an orchestra plays a Scotch reel.
The rest of the diners, the foreigners, take it for granted
now. They have come to realise that when a certain
kind of music is played the British make these noises.
No doubt it is some sort of semi-rehgious rite. The
chmax comes (nightly) with the playing of Auld Lang
Syne. The Anglo-Saxons stand up and clasp hands and
bob up and down, like howling Dervishes, and even
sing. At the end of it there are cheers and calls for
more. And then our hero and his party, after paying
the hea\^ bill, file out with much tramping of heavy
boots on the wooden flooring. They are bound for »



box at the Odeon, where there will be even more noise.
And so, after a night of it, to bed at the Splendide.

His thoughts are a Uttle confused as he lies down in
his twenty-franc bed. One day gone ! But there are
two more to come. Lots more shopping to be done.
That must be polished off to-morrow. Wonder who
will be in charge of the patrol to-night, looking for the
jolly old Bulgar. Probably Jenkins. Serve him damn
well right. Never liked Jenkins very much. What a
day ! Jolly fine sole that was at the French Club.
Wonder what She is doing now ? Perhaps lying in bed
thinking of him. Hope so. But whom is he really in
love with? England's so far away. Over two years
since he saw the Other. So much can happven in that
time. Curse the war. Wonder when it will end. . .
And so to sleep.



"The B.N."

One day the S.S.O. of the 28th Division came in a hurry
into the office of The Balkan News and explained that he
wanted some posters made of the largest size possible
bearing the legend, under the name of the paper, "Re-
ported Death of Queen Anne." It was for a joke up-
country, he explained. We managed to oblige him,
and on the night the posters were done one was dis-
played from a box in the White Tower Theatre. The
howl that went up from all the British Officers amazed
everybody else present. What was this British joke ?
The well-known and deservedly popular A.S.C. Major
who held the poster out of the box enjoyed the fun as
much as anybody. And in the middle of it he turned
to a friend near him and said, "Who is Queen Anne,
anyhow ?"

I mention this harmless little incident merely to show
in what relation The Balkan News stood to the Army
for which it was produced. It was everybody's friend,
and may truly be said to have been the centre of all
interest and amusement in the B.S.F. Given the con-
ditions under which it was produced, it might easily
have been a joke. Instead it made jokes. Once, indeed,
Punchf which, as everybody knows, thrives on other
journals' errors, made a palpable hit against it. There

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 4 of 23)