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H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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to do something and the mess furniture suffered.

Next afternoon M. Venizelos came up from Salonica,
accompanied by the other two members of the Trium-
virate of that time — General Danglis and Admiral Con-
douriotis. A large square " ring " had been roped off
in Jimmy's Greek camp, and round this were gathered
some thousands of our soldiers, a large number of staff
officers from a neighbouring H.Q., and most of the
population of the labour camp. There were first of all
dances from the little girls of the camp (who were all
earning high wages working on the roads), and M.
Venizelos looked on with a benevolent smile. Then
we had wrestling matches, presumably in the Greco-
Roman style, and some very sturdy champions tried
t-o pull each other to pieces. One realised that under

64



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

his baggy clothing, the Balkan peasant may conceal
a splendid physique. A real champion from Crette,
from whom much was expected, was beaten by a local
man, to tlie great satisfaction of the residents in the
labour camp. All this was followed by a display of
boxing, and M. Venizelos, after taking tea and cakes
in a crowded tent, returned to Salonica amid loud cries
of " Zito." It was quite a successful afternoon, and
M. Venizelos was able to see for himself what had long
become an accepted fact all over Macedonia — that
everywhere they came under British control, the natives
had such a peaceful, happy and prosperous time as they
had never known before in all their lives. One story
of an old Turk in the Struma Valley crystallises all this,
and throws a searchlight on the normal conditions of
the Balkans. " You know," he said, to a well-known
British Colonel, " this is the first war of its kind we
have ever known. None of your men have touched our
women.^^

The time of this trip up-country was early spring,
and the region in which I lived for a week had a beauty
of its own, during this brief period before the heat
came. It was a place of treeless, rolling hills and
valleys, with a rocky crag here and there, scoured by
deep watercourses which for the greater part of the
year were dry. Here and there we had quarries which
we were ceaselessly blasting for road metal. The O.C.
lent me his horse, and with Jimmy I explored the sur-
roundings. One day we went a long ride to Langaza and
back, and I thought, as we thudded at full gallop across
the plain, of crowded and smelly Salonica, with its
eternal noise and discomfort. Here, in the pure air of
Spring, with not a soul in sight, it was like being un-
caged and given wings. Langaza is a big Turkish vil-
lage, about two miles from the large lake of the same

65 F



SALONICA AND AFTER

name, and set in a broad and fertile valley. The Army
had just started a big potato farm there. We found the
officer in charge of it away, but had an excellent tea
in his rooms, an old Turkish house, all the same. How
little we English change wherever we are. It was a
splendid burst of freedom, but for me the whole glorious
day would have been spoiled if we had not found a
teapot at Langaza. And all over Macedonia at that
moment, up to the confines of Serbia, Bulgaria and
Albania, innumerable parties of Britons were sitting
down to tea, in tents, huts or dug-outs, and asking each
other to pass the marmalade.

Following on that first pleasant experience " up the
line," I was able to make many trips, and go much
further afield, thanks to the help of a sturdy Ford,
which at one time and another bumped me over most of
the tracks of Macedonia. And wherever one went one
found a little settlement of Britons, generally very com-
fortably installed and always glad to offer hospitality
and talk with somebody they did not see every day.
After the first year of our presence in Macedonia the
country became very well organized, and our men were
able to settle down to some extent and make the most
of the circumstances in which they were living. Those
who could, abandoned tents and built huts to live in.
Little camps grew and developed, so that the halting
place of 1916 became a pleasant residence in 1917. The
many motor transport companies dotted up and down
the countty took endless pains to make their camps
look as much like home as possible. Divisional and
Brigade Headquarters became pleasant little villages,
cunningly hidden away in all sort of gullies, or built into
a hillside. And in the line itself the battalion head-
quarters developed and did all sorts of wonderful
things with sandbags and a few odd bits of corrugated

66



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

iron. So that gradually order and some measure of
comfort were imposed on the wilderness, and if one
had transport and the privilege of roaming up and down
the country one could always be sure of a good dinner,
a bed of sorts, and pleasant company in whatever spot
of Macedonia evening might happen to find one.

On one of my earlier trips up the line I realised to
the full what the officer who came down to Salonica
on three days leave had to undergo for his amusement.
A friend in a Scots regiment called in the office and
insisted on my returning the compliment, so to speak,
and spending three days " up there " with him. It
was June, and broiling hot. The small Ford van, piled
high with packages bought for the mess, took us six
miles along the bumpy Monastir Road to Dudular
Station. There we took the train and, after a very un-
comfortable afternoon, during which everybody took
oft all the clothes they decently could, we arrived
late at Karasouli. The R.T.O. was extremely glad to
see us. A Boche aeroplane had not long before passed
over and he feared it had " got " the train. Limbers
were waiting for the mess supplies, and horses for us.
For two hours we rode, and on the way admired a sun-
set behind the mountains on the Serbian frontier — a
gorgeous sight. There were glimpses of the Vardar here
and there, winding in its broad valley, and with the
last glow of sunset a sickle moon hung over the moun-
tains, now one long sweep of sepia outlined against
the faint blue of the sky. After the afternoon in the
blistering train, this peace and beauty of the cool even-
ing was perfect — a balm to the soul. At dusk, with
some difficulty we found the camp of the Brigade Trans-
port Officer, hidden away as usual in as lumpy ground
as possible.

Here we dined excellently on frozen rabbit (a new

67



SALONICA AND AFTER

issue, over which we made the usual jokes). The
Brigade Transport Officer was a hospitable soul, sent
the port round freely after dinner, and pressed us to
stop the night. It was now dark as a bag outside, and
I should have liked nothing better. The B.T.O. pro-
tested that it was a shame to take a stranger out on a
three-hours ride after dinner. McNab (as I will call
my friend) insisted cheerfully that we should do the
journey in two hours. He carried the day, or the night,
and we started off in pitch darkness. We lost our way
completely — McNab was new to this part of the line —
and after many adventures finally rode into an ugly
little valley full of dug-outs and shell holes at three
o'clock in the morning, this being McNah's home in the
support line of his battalion. We had been nearly six
hours on the way. I was dog-tired and wanted only
to lie down, but McNab insisted on producing a drink
from somewhere in his dug-out and began to talk of
the glorious time he had had in Salonique !

It was a very pleasant and interesting three days I
spent with McNab and his friends. There was much
to do and see. We were on the very left of the British
line, just near the Vardar. Over th. river the French
took the line, and carried it on across the mountains
to where, near the high Moglena Range, they linked up
with the Serbians. It was a quiet time on the front.
^Jothing particular was happening, although there was
a fair amount of artillery activity. Our trenches here,
as things went in the Balkans, were strongly held ; the
junction on the Vardar was a point which needed every
care in defence. But here, as everywhere else, we had
practically no reserves. The Balkan campaign, in fact,
was fought with no reserves worth mentioning, not
even an Army reserve. We had none. The front-line
droops were always the front-line troops, and some of

68



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

them were in the trenches without cessation for a year
or more on end. Here again we come to the question
of bluff, which has already cropped up elsewhere. The
enemy could never possibly have realised how thin was
our line, and how little we had behind it. We carried
out raids and attacked with the very men who, in case
of a big enemy offensive, would have been all that we
could oppose to the Bulgars. On occasion, we even
created a '* stage army " to deceive the enemy. I know
of one case in which the same section of transport,
which was in view, but not in range of the enemy, was
sent marching round and round a hill to give the
appearance that it was a long continuous line. Remem-
ber that w^e had 90 miles of line to hold, and for a
long period had only four Divisions, at times much
weakened by battle losses and sickness, to do it. If
thp Bulgar had tried an attack on the grand scale, with
German support, as was often anticipated, he would
no doubt have received a rough handling — everybody
was determined on that — but he must have got through.
Here, in the sandbagged front line, one thought of
the multitude of shopkeepers and commerQants down in
Salonica, who plied their trades and made their money
out of the Allied Armies solely by virtue of this very
sandbagged line, which they never saw or visualised,
and probably never even thought of. No Man's Land
here was some 1,000 yards wide and the Bulgar trenches
ran along the crest of a high hill which as usual domin-
ated us. In the tumbled space of ground between our
patrols went out night after night to Red Indian work ;
a game at which they became extremely efficient,
whether on this front or in the narrow No Man's Land
near Lake Doiran or in the wide extent of the Struma
Valley. I have met officers who have done patrol work
in France who said they preferred it between trench and

69



SALONICA AND AFTER

trench to this eerie wandering about in the darkness
in a wild ground full of watercourses, ravines, ruined
villages, and a hundred other features which might
conceal an ambush. The Bulgar was extremely good
at this game, but as time went on our own men became
easily his masters in every form of night work.

McNab's Company Mess was a cheery place, full of
young Scotsmen chiefly from Glasgow. The roof was
of tin and the sides of sandbags. The Bulgar was rather
fond of plumping 5.9's into this particular part, and
it was trying, during dinner, pretending that one liked,
or at any rate was quite indifferent to, the loud bangs
that were sounding from the fairly near neighbour-
hood. The mess possessed a gramophone with four
discs, all in French, which had been dug up somewhere
in Salonica. One was "The Song of the Cameldriver,"
a most melodious individual who performed every even-
ing. Another was " Le Dernier Carre de Waterloo,
avec Chant's, Trompettes, Tambours, Salves d'Artil-
lerie. ..." and goodness knows what else. It was
inspiring and popular. There were also two songs from
the Paris cabarets, imperfectly understood, but thor-
oughly welcome. We had them all twice over, and the
sound of the ladies' voices took one's thoughts back
to the Boulevard des Italiens and nights spent at *' La
Pie Qui Chante," and elsewhere. We lunched one day
at the battalion headquarters' mess in the line, a mas-
sive creation of sandbags, and there on the walls La Vie
Parisienne was doing its dainty worst. Everywhere
one discovered " La Vie.'''* One wonders what its war-
time circulation became as a result of the British
Army's fondness for a touch of colour in life. It
became, in time, an acute relief to enter a dug-out or
a hut or a mess of any kind and discover that the pic-
tures on the walls were not the impossible, lingeried

70



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

creations of the artists of " La Vie.'''' And yet one has
seen many places so decorated, with the undulating
forms of the skittish young things carefully cut out
with scissors, with the most pleasing effect.

One day, McNab and I rode to the Brigade head-
quarters for lunch. It was tucked away in a very
narrow ravine, with every hut most carefully camoufie
with brushwood, but all the same the Bulgar heavies
had found it, and a day or fwo before two mess waiters
near the cookhouse had simply disappeared, following
the explosion of a 5.9. Here we found that one of the
officers on the staff — a keen naturalist, like many other
officers in the B.S.F. — had a magnificent pair of eagle
owls in a big cage. They stood nearly three feet high
and had eyes like blazing yellow gooseberries. Their
captor caressed their downy chests, and they looked
down at his hand with grave owlish interest as he did
so. Nobody else would have tried it. Their long talons
and beaks commanded respect. The Brigade Staff
had another curiosity of which they were proud ; their
so-called " Ice-chamber," a deep gallery cut into the
rocky side of the ravine. Here after lunch, in the semi-
darkness, we sat and smoked, cool as cucumbers, while
outside the heat of early afternoon shimmered and
danced. There was something boyish about the officers
in their " shorts," with shirts open at the neck and
sleeves rolled up. These and the eagle owls and the
ice-chamber, and the general feeling of campaigning
being jolly, as it can seem after a good lunch and when
you are sitting in a cool place on a hot day, gave one
a pleasing Peter Pan sort of impression.

Undoubtedly, in years to come, many of those who
passed through the long exile in Macedonia will, in
looking back, forget the hardships and the weariness
and think only of the happier side. Some there were

71



SALONICA AND AFTER

who had little or no happy side. The infantry who
held the constantly battered trenches on, say Tortue or
the Horseshoe — two of the many very " warm " spots
near Doiran — or who patrolled day after day and
month after month in the malarial Struma ; or the
transport drivers, whether of lorries or mules, who made
their difRcult way along muddy and hilly roads and
tracks — these saw little of the pleasant side of Ufe.
But here and there were people whose lives, during cer-
tain periods of their service at any rate, were cast in
pleasant places. One of the most favoured spots in
all Macedonia was Stavros, the little port we made at
the extreme right of the British line, on the Gulf of
Orfano. It was a sweet little place of noble hills,
covered with dense olive green scrub and trees, running
down to the edge of a blue sea. Early in 1916 a camp
began to spring up on the sea shore, which gradually
developed so that huts became quite passable bun-
galows, and these and the tents that lined the beach
reposed under the grateful shade of trees — very rare
things in Macedonia. The climate was generally beau-
tiful, although very hot and relaxing in summer, but
there were winter and spring and autumn days there
that were a dream of delight. There were only two
drawbacks to life there; the mosquitos and the occa-
sional bombs dropped by the enemy aeroplanes, but
these, after all, were common to all the front. But for
the bombs, and the frequent rumble of the giuis a little
further up the coast near the mouth of the Struma,
where ancient Amphipolis lies buried, it was really
possible to forget the war. Later on we opened a rest
camp there, which was the most appreciated spot of all
by tired officers and men sent down for a spell from the
line. I spent a delightful four or five days at Stavros
on one occasion. One's hosts were as pleasant and as

72



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

hospitable as could be; my tent, pitched on white
sand, was five yards from the edge of the tideless sea ;
it was very hot, but there was constant shade and a
deck chair, and that most exquisite of all pleasures —
sitting lazily while other people worked. One day, an
energetic M.O. made me walk up a steep ravine to see
the work of canalisation that had been carried out,
so that the stream in the ravine could rush down strong
and unimpeded, leaving no quiet pools in which the
anopheles mosquito could breed — one little detail of the
immense labour which was necessary to make Mace-
donia a place in which it was possible for civilised
people to exist. It was very hot in the narrow ravine.
The energetic M.O., full of enthusiasm about liis anti-
malarial work, bounded up from rock to rock like a
mountain goat. Half-way up I regretted leaving that
deck chair, thought longingly of the shady trees and
the gently lapping wavelets on the shore. . . . But
later at dinner, sitting on a little verandah, with the
magnificent colours of evening shining on the bay, and
over the great mountains beyond, that fronted our
positions, one forgot the trials of an energetic afternoon
in the peace and comfort of this al fresco repast. It
was as good as an evening at Monaco, with the added
charm of a picnic thrown in. Only the absence of Eve
marred all such gatherings. How many thousands of
men have thought, in such circumstances, that with
" the wife " or " the girl " sitting there, even war
would have its compensations. After dinner we went
to the theatre, if you please ; a large place, half-4;ent,
half-shed, newly erected, where an excellent troupe
from the 27th Division was performing; and coming
out afterwards a bright moon could be seen shining up
above through the trees and the nightingales — hun-
dreds of them apparently — were so busy with their

73



SALONICA AND AFTER

singing that it was almost a clamour. There is no doubt
about it that Stavros was made for honeymoon couples,
but alas ! there were no honeymoons to be had in the
B.S.F. Stavros had yet one more charm in that it
was, so to speak, amphibious. The Navy was well
represented there, chiefly by very jovial commanders
of monitors, who in the mornings '' shoved off "in their
wallowing craft to throw some " heavy stuff " into the
Bulgar trenches away beyond Orfano, and in the even-
ing came ashore to tell all about it at the little club.
Also somebody made a tennis court near the beach ;
and there was some of the best woodcock shooting in
the world there — if you could get cartridges. Likewise
there were the beauties of the Rendina Gorge — a real

beauty spot But we must say no more of

Stavros, lest we give a false impression of campaigning
in the Balkans. It was. without a doubt, the Jewel
of Macedonia, shining all the brighter for its contrast
with so much of the rest of the barren country, and
lucky were the people who were able to put in a good
stretch of work there.

Later in the campaign travelling up and down was
much facilitated by the various little hotels that were
organised here and there, which I believe originated
with the 28th Division. The chief purpose of these
was to provide an intermediate stage for officers to sleep
in a trip from the Line down to Salonica. They started
in a very humble way and gradually developed
until we reached the summit of accommodation in the
hotel at Yanesh, the Savoy of Macedonia. Yanesh is
also spelt Janes, and going along the roads one encoun-
tered here and there hanging signboards, quite in the
old English manner, bearing the legend : " Go to Janes
Hotel," which was a little puzzling to some people,
who wondered who Jane could be. It was a well-built

74




Photo, t.v Lleitt. A. N. Baylev. RA.S.C.



Macedonian shepherd on the sum-
mit of Mount Kotos (4,000 feet)
overlooking Salonica harbour.



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

structure, with a dining-room, reading-room and a
number of two-bed cubicles. And greater than all these
was a bathroom containing two beautiful, shiny- white
full-sized baths. How many officers, down from the
dusty trenches in the Doiran hills ten or twelve miles
away, have splashed about luxuriously in these, revel-
ling in the caressing lap of plenteous hot water ? During
the " pantomime season " Janes Hotel was the scene
of many a pleasant gathering in which both sexes were
^'epresented at dinner, for as a great treat the sisters
and nurses at the Base hospitals were sometimes taken
a trip up the line to see the Divisional shows. And
what a difference it made to everybody, officers and
men, to hear the sound of a woman's voice ! For
months and years on end the only representatives of
the softer sex seen by our men up country were bent
and wizened hags, with dusky faces, carrying a load
of brushwood on their backs. Female grace is not a
strong point in Macedonia, and the law of the male
who makes his spouse do all the hard work is still ob-
served. One may see My Lord trotting proudly along
on a diminutive donkey, and My Lady trailing behind
carrying her load.

There are so many friends up-country of whom one
would like to speak, but they were all the same — that
is, they were all most hospitable. There were friends
at Dimitric, the battered little mud village on the
Struma Plain, with its truncated minaret, so long the
headquarters of the 27th Division. Dimitric was a
very museum of birds — starlings, rooks, crows, storks,
owls, screech owls, hawks, ravens, and many other
kinds. And the marshes of the river, a few miles away,
were a paradise for the sportsman — geese, and duck of
all kinds. But that applied to many places.

At the headquarters of the various Divisions, in M.T,

75



SALONICA AND AFTER

camps in Serbia and elsewhere, or with the Battalions,
one always found a welcome. I remember at a Field
Ambulance, tucked away like so many other camps
in a ravine, one of the M.O.s at dinner produced a most
amazing insect which he had found. It was just about
the size of a small chick, and was the sort of thing one
would expect to encounter only in a nightmare. The
M.O., who was something of a naturalist, told us all
about it, but I forget the details, and even its name.
It crawled over the table during dinner, causing much
interest and some alarm. Coffee over, the M.O. packed
the horror back into its box and retired to his tent,
from which presently came the melancholy and wistful
sounds of a flute. (Besides being an M.O., a naturalist
and a musician, he was a first-class photographer, a
student of Arabic and an authority on postage stamps.
One meets people like that.) He played extremely
well, but I think there is nothing to equal the melan-
choly of a flute. Try it on a still evening in a pictur-
esque ravine, with the rumble of the guns coming
faintly from further up the line and a gentle enthusiast
playing the Barcarolle from '' The Tales of Hoffmann."
He was still playing when we went to bed, his earnest
silhouette cast by the candle-light on to the side of his
tent, and as I lay in my own I felt like crying with
the American in the famous story, " Take that man
away. He's breaking my heart ! "

There was one often to be met with up-countty whom
one cannot presume to include amongst one's friends,
but who meant a great deal to the life of everyone in
the B.S.F. Often on a lonely hill road, one would
see far ahead a car coming with something that fluttered
on it. The driver would see it too, and unconsciously
stiffen a little. Somebody on the roadside would see it,
and stand very erect and ready. And then the car

7a



FRIENDS UP COUNTRY

would flash past, with the Union Jack fluttering out.
The British Commander-in-Chief was on his way up or
down the Une ; the man who held in his hand the
thunders of Jove, or the kindly power to reward good
work well done. It always gave a little thrill to meet
the C.-in-C. on the road. One felt suddenly very much
in touch with home, and England's power and all that
she stands for. Here, in a sense, was the King himself;
or as near to him as we in Macedonia could hope to get.
Many stories are told of encounters with the C.-in-C.
on the road. Some are true, no doubt, and some only
ben trovato. There are stories of swift and terrible
lightnings ; other stories very kindly and gentle in de-
meanour, eminently satisfactory to all concerned.
Stories of quite humble people being picked up and
given a lift, and being able to air their views before
Authority in a fashion they would never have dreamed
of; and other stories of people who fled wildly from
the possibility of encounter. No doubt all Armies have
similar stories about their Commanders-in-Chief. These
things grow, and expand, and take varying colours


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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 6 of 23)