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H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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was an advertisement on the back page which read,
"Finest Scotch Whisky." Late one night the hand-set

50



^'THE B.N/'

type of this advertisement became dislodged on the
machine, and the printer, who was a Spanish-Salonica-
Jew, put the bits back as best he knew how. Conse-
quently the next morning the line read, "Finest Whitch
Scosky.*' Punch remarked : "Evidently the printer
had been sampling." But the trouble was, not that
he had been sampling Scotch, but that he had never
sampled English. And we should like Punch to try the
task of producing without error a newspaper composed
by Jews, Greeks, an Italian and other oddments, none
of whom know English except in occasional dangerous
patches, and which appears not once a week, but seven
times !

Salonica was extremely well supplied with news-
papers. It had them in all tongues — like the little man
who was selling religious books on the steamer at Chal-
cis. There were Greek, of course, French, Turkish,
Italian, and Judaeo-Espagnol (the written language of
the Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain in the
reign of Isabella). Altogether there were more than
twenty. But there was only one in English, and it was
The Balkan News, generally known as the B.N. or
"The Balkan," or the "Bawkanoos" — after the cry of
the vendors who sold it all over Macedonia.

It may be taken quite for granted that when many
years hence the last veterans of the Great War are tell-
ing stories to their grandchildren, quite a number will
talk about The Balkan News. A newspapei', thank
Heaven, is not merely merchandise, although many
merchants own newspapers. A newspaper is a living
thing, an idea with a soul in it, and the soul cf the
B.N. was a bright little flame that shone in many a
dark place in the Balkans. There are peo"ple who used
to ride twenty miles a day to get it. It was their only
link with the world beyond. By means of the wireless

51



/



SALONICA AND AFTER

messages printed in it, which a wise Government sent
broadcast, they could read what Mr. Lloyd George had
said the evening but one before. This means a great
deal to a man who is living far away from anywhere,
because Mr. Lloyd George was nearly always cheery,
and one of his speeches was as good as a new disc on
the gramophone. The B.N. readers could rejoice in
victories, when we had them, and smile sardonically at
the explanations of the military experts when we didn't.

If ever there is a "next war" I would suggest that
the military authorities give as much attention to sup-
plying the troops with news and newspaper reading as
with rations. One is almost as necessary as the other —
at any rate, on a front far removed from home. The
London newspapers which arrived on the Salonica
Front were hardly ever less than three weeks old. After
such a lapse of time they were always flat and stale,
as the troops had always learned sufficient of the current
news in the interval to rob the big newspaper of nearly
all its interest. The B.N. happily filled this gap, and
although it did not take very long to read through, it
always supplied new subjects for conversation. And
that is what keeps the mind uplifted and the spirits
bright in men who are so long away from their homes
. . . "See what the Balkan had in this morning about
the new Tanks ?"

Any attention and care that an Army took to
brighten and improve a newspaper produced specially
for its troops would be repaid many times over. The
proper provision of a newspaper, with the necessary
machines, paper, staff, etc., and plant to reproduce
photographic illustrations and humorous drawings,
would run to about a tenth of the outlay necessary to
organise the average supply dump, and the enormous
value of such an installation to an Army, if properly

52



"THE B.N."

conducted, cannot be expressed in figures. The only
drawback to such a newspaper, run on strictly military
lines, is that it might tend to become a little too stiff
in its attitude. The Press is one of the few things which
does not run easily into the military mould. The comic
muse, for instance, does not flourish under such con-
ditions. A Major in charge of such a department might
be the best of fellows, but there would be moments
when his position in the military hierarchy would clash
with his duties or his fancies as an editor. The Balkan
Nexvs was free of this difficulty. As in the case of the
official war correspondents, there was no rank attached
to the office of editor. But the i>ap>er suffered from the
disadvantage of having to rely entirely on local techni-
cal resources, and these, for the most part, were of a
very primitive kind, so that the staff could never give
full effect to their ideas and inspirations, and many
good things that might have been done — all of which
would have helped greatly in heartening and cheering
the troops — had to be left undone. The difficulties of
obtaining proper supplies and materials from England
during the war were practically prohibitive.

But whatever the professional point of view may
have been as to the technical shortcomings of the B.N.,
there was little or no feeling of this kind among its
many readers. "There are only two things one used
to look for up the line. One was letters from home and
the other was The Balkan Nercs." I have heard this
said very many times, and it was the general opinion.
And people liked it because it was small, and not in
spite of it. There was no desire for a three-decker
London newspaper in the trenches, with gardening
notes, ladies' page and all complete. The B.N. was a
symbol of the life they were leading. If you live in a
gully, you don't expect to see the Daily Telegraph come



SALONICA AND AFTER

up every morning with the ration mules, any more than
you expect to put on a white shirt for dinner.

Started in November, 1915, the B.N. was the first
daily newspaper to come into being purely for the needs
of an army, and the cry of "Bawkanoos," which was
first heard in the camps immediately outside the city,
spread, as the troops advanced, to the furthest confines
of Macedonia. The distribution was done by means of
train, lorry and ration cart, but also, and chiefly, by
the untiring efforts of some sixty vendors. All sorts
of problems were always arising, of a kind quite un-
known to the London circulation manager. The
weather was a great factor. In the earlier stages of the
campaign the roads were in a terrible condition, and a
rainstorm or a blizzard often cut off not only the news-
paper bundles, but rations and supplies as well. The
newsvendors were of all ages from eighteen to sixty,
and were chiefly Jews from Salonica, or Greeks — some
of them refugees from Thrace or Asia Minor. They were
almost invariably a hard-working, conscientious lot,
and although some little suspicion was attached to them
at first on the score of possible espionage, nothing was
ever brought against them, and in time they came to
be accepted as a natural feature in the camps. They
dressed in the strangest garments, and their faces, as
they appeared in photograph on the police passes with
which they were provided, suggested nothing so much
as a rogues' gallery. But their cry of "Bawkanoos"
was as welcome as the birds in spring. I have heard it
in the early morning in scores of camps, and it was
often melodious in the highest degree. It always re-
minded me of the warning cry of "Achtung" that one
hears on the Swiss toboggan tracks. (It is a German
word, but it sounds very beautiful in a Swiss valley in
winter.)

54



"THE B.N."

Looking back on nearly three years of work on The
Balkan News, the predominating feeling is one of thank-
fulness that seven-day journalism is unknown in
England. I remember that after the first solid year's
work on The Balkan News, in all of which period there
had been only one half-holiday — this because the Jew-
ish vendors would not work on the feast of Yom Kippur
— one felt dazed and benumbed. Help at first was diffi-
cult to get, and it was necessary to carry on day after
day without cessation. In the summer of 1916, the
office was like a red-hot stove. And, day after day,
even four smallish pages need a lot of filling, when in
addition to an Editor there is only a staff of one, whose
energies are almost entirely taken up by the careful
proof-reading that is necessary when the compositors
are Jews and Greeks who do not understand English.
And there was one dreadful period of over a fortnight,
when even the staff of one was in hospital with a touch
of dysentery. One worked in a dream — articles, proofs,
leaders, poems, callers, telephone, proofs, machine
breakdown, heat, flies, telephone, tea-time, proofs —
and so on, till dinner. Every morning, during that
year, one rose with enormous and bounding vitality ;
with great ideas of the great things one would do ; of
the articles and books that were calling to be written.
By lunch time, these visions had evaporated, and
during the heat it was as much as one could do to
totter down Venizelos Street, protected by a sun hel-
met, and lunch frugally on an iced Perrier (when there
was one to be found) and tomato salad. By tea-time,
the fifty-and-one things of the sweltering afternoon had
reduced one to a condition of fierce irritability ; a crisis
which was only conjured away each day by tea at the
club. And by the time dinner came, at 8.80, one
looked forward to the morrow with horror. It was a



SALONICA AND AFTER

treadmill. One had the tragic feeling which must have
always been in the heart of the oft-quoted Sisyphus.
The stone pushed painfully to the top of the hill during
the long day always came rolling back at lightning
speed with every evening. For no sooner were the
damp proofs finally passed than one had to begin to
prepare another paper for the morrow. All this would
not have mattered for six days in the week. But it was
the seventh day that nearly broke the Editor's back.

But running the B.N. even in these first days of
stress had many compensations. One was very much in
touch with the great heart of the Army, and one knew
exactly what tune it was beating to. Enough has been
said about the British soldier's gift of humour in the
War to make it unnecessary to labour the point here.
One need only say that the men of the B.S.F. were in
no way behind the men of the other British Armies.
They did all their grumbling through the medium of
humour, and we discovered some first-class humorists
in the Salonica Army. They had, of course, all the
usual humorous grumbles to make, common to all
Armies, but they had also their specialities, and of
these, quinine was certainly the foremost. That the
humorous subject of quinine had behind it the very
sombre background of malaria — with the strength of an
army sucked away as if by an evil spell — only, of
course, made the joke all the better.

The exactions of the local shopkeepers supplied the
motive for many articles ; also the quaint ways and
language of the many Greek labourers attached to the
Army. These were known generally as Idey Brosses ;
from the Turkish word '* haide " (" get along in front
there ") and the Greek word '* emhros,^^ which means
much the same thing. The drivers of the local carts all
shout this in the streets: " Haide-e-e-bros-s-s " ; both



"THE B.N."

words being stretched out to great length. It is the
Macedonian equivalent for the French attention and
the "mind your backs" of the London railway porter.
Every Greek, or any other native of Macedonia, there-
fore became an Idey Bross. But somebody one day
called a native "Johnny." The native retorted in
kind, and thus, although later all natives became
" Johnny Greeks," all the British became Johnnies too.
And it is really a little disconcerting for a Staff Colonel
to be addressed as " Hey Johnny."

Later in the campaign, " Balkan Tap " was an in-
exhaustible fund of humour. It means that you suffer
from a sort of mental obfuscation, due to long resi-
dence in the Balkans without leave — and many of the
medical officers think there may be something in it.
" Balkan Tap " is supposed to make you do all sorts
of strange things, and the mere mention of the phrase
in the Army theatres always brought its laugh. There
are various explanations of the origin of the term, but
they need not be traced to their sources here. " Balkan
Tap" is an excellent illustration of the virtue of making
the best out of the worst. The weariness and staleness
that came of long campaigning in the Balkans became
crystallised in a phrase ; and the mere quotation of the
phrase chased away the weariness for the moment and
raised a smile.

After the many excellent humorous writers who
figured so prominently in The Balkan Nexvs the poets
were the most remarkable feature. There were thou-
sands of men in the army who apparently had a desire
to write verse, and they came from all classes. A few
were really good, many quite passable and the majority
terrible. For weeks and months on end, one would
receive a dozen poems a day in the office — and poems
are very troublesome things to deal with. So often one

57



SALONICA AND AFTER

is tempted to publish a poem, not because it is good,
but because something in it pleases or touches or
amuses ; or perhaps out of sheer compassion because
the author sends with it a letter in which he describes
how tremendously grateful and happy he will be if only
he can see his poem appear in "■ your well-esteemed
and bright little paper." It is disastrous to give way
to any such weakness as this, because the delighted
author immediately follows up his first poem with a
second, which is much worse, and continues to bom-
bard you at regular intervals. And though a poet who
is never published may only waste away with secret
grief, a poet who has been published once and then is
scorned, becomes an angry and bitter man with a
grievance.

The fame of the B.N. has gone all over the world.
Innumerable thousands of copies of it have been posted
to every corner of the British Empire. We were
" noticed " in many newspapers in many climes, and
always with every kindness, though sometimes with
patronage. Did we not indeed once administer a rebuke
to " The Kidderminster Shuttle " for this very reason ?

One will never forget those days in the summer of
1916. The dominant note in life was exasperation — due
to the heat and some of the native people one had to
deal with. Up to lunch things would always go calmly,
but in the afternoon there would be complications. The
compositors would get tangled up, or the age-long
quarrel which existed between them and their head man
would break out afresh. One would have to go into the
composing room and still the tumult, and in the midst
of accusation and counter-accusation the desire to take
them and bang their heads together became overwhelm-
ing. Most of the natives of Salonica have this Irritating
effect on one. The usual run of employees are utterly

58



"THE B.N."

unmannerly, and a favourite trick is to rush in and
break in on a conversation with loud shouts about some
unimportant matter or other. The local magnate, with
whom you are talking, breaks off to answer and a hot
discussion follows in Judseo-Espagnol. You stand there
and run your fingers through your hair, and want to
assassinate somebody. Salonica quite altered my views
as to the ethics of murder. If one had known exactly
what to do with the corpse, I would often have slain
a son of Salonica.

During the long afternoon — perhaps the telegrams
were late, or the precious typewriter had broken down,
due to somebody once tampering with it — there would
be an innumerable string of callers who put their little
troubles at our door : Where to buy a piano, a gun, or
silk stockings for a concert part "girl" ; could you please
cash a cheque ? — is it true that you have a car, and if so
is it likely to be going this afternoon to the — th General
Hospital, nine kilometres away ? — could you get us a
programme printed by to-morrow night ? — hello Old
Thing, I'm down again for three days, come out and
have a nice cool drink — may I use your telephone ? — I
want you please to find a nice Greek Officer with whom
I can exchange conversational lessons — can you come
up and see our show to-morrow night, I tell you it's
great, and our beauty chorus makes all the rest look
cheap ? — can you tell me where I shall find any litera-
ture which tells all about the many tumuli found round
Salonica, and if not, do you know anything about
them ? — do you know the authentic history of the
White Tower ? — I have a little poem here, if you
wouldn't mind reading it through I'll wait ! — And so
on. Also friends would come in and say, '* I know
you're busy, but . . ." and stop for twenty minutes.
So on, till tea-time, and then till eight o'clock, when

ri9



SALONICA AND AFTER

the paper, with its cumbersome hand-set type would
be '*■ put to bed." Then back again after dinner, to
prepare for the morrow. A seven-day newspaper, even
a little one, is like a sick baby. You can never leave it.
Quite a number of anecdotes, true and otherwise,
cluster round the B.N. One of the true ones is that of
the Bulgar who left a note for one of our outposts on
the Struma, saying that as he possessed the words for
'* Boris the Bulgar " published in the B.N. he would
be awfully glad if he could have the music. " Boris
the Bulgar " was a parody on the famous " Gilbert the
Filbert," and the refrain of it was: —

" Good gracious, how spacious
And deep are the cuts
Of Boris the Bulgar,
The Knifer of Knuts."

I believe it was decided that the request should not
be granted. Another Bulgar used to leave a penny
every night somewhere near Big Tree Well, in the
region of ButkovaLake, and quite often he got his B.N.
in exchange. No doubt every such copy did more than
its fair share of propaganda.

And this sketch of the work of The Balkan News
would not be complete if we did not mention a great
personality who was closely identified with it. I refer
to that grandiose individual known to all in the Balkans
as His Macedonian Highness, The Comitadji.

H.M.H. The Comitadji was a sort of blend of Falstaflf,
Cyrano de Bergerac, Ally Sloper and Mr. Horatio
Bottomley, adapted to Balkan conditions. It will
easily be seen that here are all the makings of a Great
Man. He was a being of imposing presence ; he drank
deep — too deep ; he was, according to his own accounts,
a great Bulgar Slayer; he had, naturally, a plurality
of wives : and was a master of rounded, rolling periods.

^0




The Limonadji, or
street lemonade seller.



Pholo : Scr^l. Milne



A scene in Jean Tchimiski
Street, December, 1916.




I':,ut,j : L^;.:. J . L. U, ^,:;



'*THE B.N."

In royal, or semi-royal, state, he moved up and down
the British area of Macedonia in his powerful Ford
motor-car, which was universally known as the J.R.L.,
or Junior Road Louse. Another Great Man of long
ago, Don Quixote, was brought into being to tilt at the
false romanticism which existed in Cervantes' time.
H.M.H. was perhaps partly called into being by the
great outpouring of decorations and orders which was
one of the symptoms of the Great War. As so many
others were being given, H.M.H. The Comitadji insti-
tuted his own orders. The best known of these was the
Order of the Boiled Owl, and after a time it became a
very prized decoration indeed. I remember a Lieut.-
Colonel who had been so decorated, who, on reading
that a mere major had been similarly honoured, sug-
gested quite seriously that the O.B.O. (this was long
before the days of the O.B.E.) should not be given to
anybody below his own rank. There were other decora-
tions, but the Order of the Boiled Owl was by far the
most prized.

Armed with a plentiful supply of decorations, then,
H.M.H. The Comitadji toured his dominions in the
famous J.R.L. Soon no function was complete without
him — or at any rate, without an account of his visit to
it. For long he remained a semi-mystery to many men
in the Salonica Army. Anything might happen in the
Balkans, and quite a number of people were really per-
suaded that a magnificent individual, with gorgeous
costume and royal mien, and with an amazing capacity
for liquor, was somewhere in attendance on The Balkan
News and flitted up and down the country. Some of
them even saw him ! But after a time it was generally
accepted that the Editor, if anybody, was the Comi-
tadji, and as the first thought evoked by the presence
of the Comitadji was a plentiful supply of strong drink,

61



SALONICA AND AFTER

the Editor had some dreadful times in vainly trying to
do the reputation of the Great Man justice. The royal
device of H.M.H. was Ivresse Oblige, and it was a motto
that wanted a lot of living up to.

Perhaps to those who read this who have not lived
in Macedonia the humour attaching to the august per-
son of H.M.H. may not " spring to the eye " as our
Allies say. But I, who know him well, have every
evidence of the worthy role played by H.M.H. in
lightening the weariness of the Macedonian campaign.
He could not, naturally, actively ameliorate the con-
ditions of life, but he and the Boiled Owl and the
J.R.L. and the Court Physician and the rest did their
bit in making people smile and be happier. His name
became a household (or a camp-fire) word ; it is one
that will be vividly remembered, hke The Balkan News
and the White Tower, years after the War is over.
And it is something to make G.H.Q. laugh. The Comi-
tadji did that in the description of how he fared in the
vast British Headquarters when he went looking for
leave. The humour that exists in the subject of in-
toxication can certainly be overdone. But H.M.H. had
other points than this, and he showed that there is
many a worse motto in life than Ivresse Oblige. And
he flourished under the highest patronage, for the
C.-in-C. himself approved of his journeyings among the
troops — even if he did not specifically commend his
libations.



62



CHAPTER VI.

Friends Up Countey.

I REMEMBER well my first real escape from the noise and
crowds of Salonica to the space and freedom of "up
the line." It was not very far up, less than half-way
to the front, but after a year's continuous work on The
Balkan News, it was like an escape from bondage. I
went up at the invitation of a friend who was an amus-
ing and an amazing person. In Salonica he had been
tlie head of a large business, but had thrown this up
to take a commission in charge of '* Greek Labour," as
we called it, although there were all sorts of nation-
alities in the labourers we had to work for us, chiefly
on road-making. Of Armenian extraction, bom in
Manchester, and with a long experience of the United
States and Constantinople, my friend combined the
qualities of East and West in a remarkable degree. To
hear him talking — Mon Dieu, how he talked ! — of what
we should and should not do in the war, and accom-
panying his everyday English with gestures in the
Oriental style (like murder, they always will " out ")
was an education. He thought with all the quickness
and intensity of one of the cleverest of the Eastern
races, and expressed himself like you or me. It made
one realise how little the average Englishman thinks,
or rather, how little he gives expression to whatever
he may be thinking. The East may or may not be
always "a-calling," but it is certainly always a-talking,
and here one heard it articulate in our own language.

68



SALONICA AND AFTER

And if England does not talk overmuch, it is always
willing to sit and listen, and Jimmy, as we will call
him, always had an audience.

Jimmy was in charge of a large camp of Greek
labourers — men, women and children — but was living
close by with an R.E. unit, whose duty it was to keep
in repair a long stretch of the Seres Road. At this
time, M. Venizelos was living in Salonica, as head of
the National Defence movement, and Jimmy had in-
vited him to come up the following day, and see what
sort of a time the natives had when working under the
British flag. Consequently, it being in the nature of a
gala week-end, there was a special dinner on the Satur-
day night, and lavish entertainment on the morrow.
It was a first-class dinner, and the evening that followed
was lively and amusing to an extraordinary degree.
Jimmy proved to have many entertaining " stunts "
up his sleeve. He had a marvellously lifelike exhibi-
tion of a lady doing up her hair, in the style of Arthur
Roberts, and could do absurd dances. Everybody tried


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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 5 of 23)