H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

. (page 8 of 23)
Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 8 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

pending trouble. The natives of the city were con-
vinced that it would not spread far. They too felt,
although they did not say it in so many words, that
although the fire might destroy the native quarters, it
would not have the bad taste to come down into the
more or less civilised parts of the city.

I decided to go up and have a look at the scene of
the conflagration. Egnatia Street was jammed, and
we met the first refugees carrying bits of furniture,



pushing through the press. A little way up one of the
side streets, that climbs the hill northwards, we had
to leave the car. Turks and Jews, with wild eyes, were
hurrying down, carrying all sort's of things. A little
further and we were on the edge of the burning quarter ;
and the tide of distracted, homeless people was flowing
all around us.

It was an extraordinary sight, and one which but
for the sewing machines and smashed wardrobe mirrors
which litttered the narrow streets and alleys, might
have been plucked straight from Biblical times. This
was the heart of the Salonica Ghetto, where a great
proportion of the population still preserved their an-
cient costumes. Here were to be seen, in scores, white-
bearded patriarchs wearing fezzes and their old-time
gaberdine costume known as the intari, rushing about
frenziedly in spite of the skirts that clung round their
slippered feet. Their women-kind rushed about with
them, holding their children by the hand and sobbing,
shouting and imploring. It was an amazing and a sad
scene ; the wailing families, the crash of falling houses
as the flames tore along, swept by the wind ; and in
the narrow streets a slow-moving mass of pack donkeys,
loaded carts, hamals carrying enormous loads ; Greek
boy scouts (who were doing excellent work) ; soldiers
of all nations, as yet unorganised to do anything defin-
ite ; ancient wooden fire-engines that creaked pathe-
tically as they spat out ineffectual trickles of water ;
and people carrying beds (hundreds of flock and feather
beds), wardrobes, mirrors, pots and pans, sewing
machines (every family made a desperate endeavour
to save its sewing machine) and a general collection of
ponderous rubbish. The evacuation of each street
came in a panic rush as its inhabitants realised that
their homes also were doomed. This attitude of only



believing at the very last moment that there was any
danger for their own homes or business establishments,
marked the whole progress of the fire until the moment
when it had reached the edge of the sea and was blazing
along nearly a mile of front. The inhabitants of every
separate line or section of streets were convinced that
the conflagration was going to pass them by. A quarter
of an hour later they were fleeing for their lives, bearing
all sorts of absurd household goods snapped up in
panic moments. As it was the Jewish Sabbath many
of the big shops were closed, and jewellers and others
did not appear to try and save their stocks until a
late hour. At ten o'clock that night, people in hotels
on the water front did not think their sleeping arrange-
ments would be disturbed — and were bolting with their
hand luggage at eleven.

Amid the medley and the uproar of the fire up in
the Ghetto I foimd the P.M. It was a difficult situation
for any administrative officer to face. The local means
for fighting a fire were nil, or next to it. It was not
easy to say in whose hands lay the material and moral
responsibility for tackling the fire, and here was a case
in which a mixed command presented difficulties.
Moreover, the fire had attained its alarming proportions
with such a sudden rush that everybody was taken off
their guard. And the " native " quarter seemed
a place off everybody's beat. The Allies only visited
it for a sfroll or from curiosity. It was, in a vague
way, nobody's business — until suddenly, like a thun-
der-clap, it became apparent that it was everybody's
business. At about this time a company of the Dur-
hams arrived from the garrison battalion down in
Beshtchinar Gardens, to form a cordon. But that did
not help to put out the fire, and there were still no
fire-engines, and little water to go through them if they



had existed. The two or three wooden boxes on wheels,
which were emitting small jets of water in response to
urgent hand-pumping, were laughable. One of them
was marked " Sun Fire Office, 1710," and it might
easily have been built in that year. Further Allied
patrols now came up, French, Italian and the rest,
and here and there officers were attempting to organise
or direct fire-fighting operations. But everything was
against them — the crowds, the narrow, jammed streets,
the lack of everything useful, and above all the fire,
which by now might have got the better of the com-
bined resources of London and New York. A little
later dynamite was tried, but the flames leaped
laughingly over any breaches made. It had been
thought earlier on that the Rue Egnatia, a street 30 ft.
wide, which, running east and west, cut off the native
quarter from the more modern half, might serve
as a barrier. But when the time came, the flames
cleared the street without noticing it. The hot wind
blowing behind created a huge forced draught.
Leaping ahead of the actual flames was a cloud of in-
candescent air, bearing great flakes of fire. This played
on buildings ahead, prepared them nicely for the
burning, and a falling flake of fire did the rest.

An hour's experience up in the fire zone was pretty
conclusive evidence that the whole of Salonica, with
the exception of the long suburb stretching along the
sea eastwards, was in danger. And yet, although one
felt this, it was difficult thoroughly to realise it and
act on it ; to digest the idea that some time during
the night one would be homeless, and counted among
the refugees. I returned to the office, where I found
the general atmosphere only a shade more grave, and
rang up the Local Transport Officer, down near the
docks : —


*' That the L.T.O. . . I say, you know there's a
fire on."

" Yes, we've heard there's a fire."

" Well, don't think I'm alarmed or in a panic or
anything of that, but it seems to me it's coming
right down to the water's edge. In that case, do you
think you could lend me a lorry later on in the evening,
so as to get as much stuff as possible away and bring
the paper out again ? "

The L.T.O. promised that this should be done if I
rang up later. And there being little else to do at the
moment, except to impress on all the natives that the
office stood an even chance of being burned down, and
to say what should be done in case of evacuation, two
of us went out to dinner, and walked down Venizelos
Street to the Club with the glow of the fire at our backs.

The Club was looking particularly brilliant for this,
its last night. Quite a number of fair Athenians had
come up to Salonica in the train of those who had
followed M. Venizelos, and most of them happened to
be present. The two dining rooms w^re full, and
everybody seemed to be in the best of spirits. The
fire, several acres of it, was now less than a quarter of
a mile away in a straight line, and still coming onwards,
but you would not have thought it to see the happy
crowd in the club. Here and there champagne corks
were popping. One could not help thinking of Nero
and his fiddle. From time to time one of the attendant
swains went out on the balcony and looked up the
street. " Yes, it seems to be gaining,'' he would say,
and sit down. In moments of quiet one could now
hear the roar of the conflagration — a terrible sound.
And while we were sitting here at an excellent dinner,
and while other people were sitting down to dinner at
the Hotel Splendide and elsewhere, some fifty thousand



wretched people already driven from their homes were
rushing about frantically, carrying heavy loads a short
distance down towards safety, only to cast the bulk
away in the streets as they tired of the weight. Occa-
sionally the club waiters asked, with a touch of anxiety,
if one thought the fire would come down our way. The
firm impression in the Club was that it would not.
The buildings in the modern quarter were " trop
solide." Therefore to dinner again. . . . When the
turn of the modern buildings came, they went up like
fireworks, in spite of their undoubted solidity.

It was nine o'clock when we left the club. A few
minutes walk back towards the fire and we saw that
the long wooden roof of the bazaar, which led from the
Rue Egnatia down Venizelos Street towards the water
front, had caught fire. It was the beginning of the
end of the commercial quarter.

Several hours before this, two new British motor
fire-engines had entered into action and were doing
splendid work. They had only arrived from England
a few days before, and were not completely ready for
service. One was up at the Base Motor Transport
Depot at Kalamaria, and the other at Marsh Pier.
When the call came at the Base M.T., a scratch crew
was raised on the spot and the engine was down on
the quay and dipping its tail into the salt water within
twenty-five minutes. Both engines did splendid work,
and at one time as much as 4,000 feet of hose was
coupled on to one of them. In one case, the driver of
the engine — which, of course, once it had driven the
vehicle down, became a pumping engine — remained at
his post without sleep from eight o'clock on the Satur-
day night until six o'clock on the following Tuesday
morning. One engine was in action "for seventeen
days and the other for ten, as once the first rush of the






conflagration was over there were many sporadic out-
breaks which had to be attended to, and parts of the
city smouldered for a fortnight.

But brave as their effort was the two engines could
not stay the rush of that wall of flame which came on
like a forest fire. On coming out of the club I decided
to go up to my flat roof again. From this the sight
was majestic. One looked into a sea of vivid red, out
of which were thrust the long white needles of minarets.
A few people were on the roof looking at the scene
with a sort of fatalistic calm. Now was the time if
ever to pack one's bags. That big and calm room
which had been such a haven on rnany a hot summer's
afternoon would shortly cease to be. I wandered round
by the light of a candle (the electric light had now
failed), packing some things and rejecting others —
which afterwards I missed badly. But it was extra-
ordinary what a calm, insouciant " let it rip " sort of
mood was engendered by that roaring monster up the
street. Since all Salonica was going to bum, what did
a few personal effects matter ? It is absurd, but that
is how many people were affected.

I rang up for the lorry, and it came promptly. By
now the streets in this quarter were repeating, on a
larger and more crowded scale, what one had seen in
the late afternoon up the hill. The hordes of refugees,
like a gallant army fighting a rearguard battle, only
evacuated one street as the enemy forced them to do
it, and then congregated in the next. Merchants were
throwing their stocks out on the pavements and then
frantically appealing for transport to remove them.
There were shrieks and cries, the crash of falling build-
ings, the sound of splintering glass — and now, louder
than ever the unvarying roar of the fire. The Balkan
News had been printing away up to ten o'clock, but

97 H


at that hour everybody deserted the machine to go and
see about their own affairs — and small blame to them.
When it came to saving the type and other things we
found there was nobody to help. All the same, we
began — and then came the news that the street out-
side was blocking up. One end was impassable because
of the hoses that ran up Venizelos Street towards the
bazaar. A heavy lorry could not possibly go over
those. And the other end was rapidly choking up with
a jam of vehicles of all sorts which became thicker
with each minute. It would not do to have the destruc-
tion of an Army lorry on one's conscience ! We packed
in all that we could, saved the precious reference
library, closed the iron doors of the machine room
downstairs, hoping that they would do their bit, and
prepared to leave.

The sky over the whole of the " solid " commercial
quarter was now one incandescent blush of sparks.
People at the Splendide — where £60,000 had just been
spent on a new tea room and other improvements to
catch the stream of gold that flowed from the Allies —
were now rushing to their bedrooms to collect what
they could carry away. The multitude of refugees was
driven into the last parallel of streets that lay near the
quay. And at last everybody realised that even these
would go. The refugees flowed to their furthest limit,
into the docks. There one saw them in thousands,
squatting hopelessly on their beds and bundles ; babies
whimpering ; little boys and girls sitting very still and
looking vacantly before them; here and there a be-
mused parent still clutching a sewing machine or a
mirror; a thousand unhappy and pitiful sights. The
roar of the fire was now like the noise of a battle. And
late in the night, obeying a sudden change of wind, the
flames executed a quick flanking movement and cut



right across the main street on to the sea. From this
moment there was only one way out of the fire area,
and that was westwards, along the Monastir road.

But just before this a magic change had come over
the scene. The British Army, which up to that moment
had belonged strictly to the British Army, suddenly
became everybody's property. An order had been
given over the telephone and forthwith, from all direc-
tions, our unrivalled transport service poured its innu-
merable lorries and motor vans into the town. Their
order was simply to take up the refugees and what they
had saved, and hurry them out of danger. Up to that
moment, a rich merchant could not have hired a lorry
for the evening for £1,000. After it, the tatterdemalions
of Salonica were given all the care of a fine lady being
handed into her carriage by her footman. The Allies
were all working now, but the British did very much
the largest share. Our men behaved with the utmost
care and consideration. ''Come on. Mother, you next,"
they shouted, and tucked a wrinkled dame in a comic-
opera costume and her family of three generations into
a capacious lorry. The vehicles were loaded up at a
tremendous rate, and as fast as they were full went
off along the Monastir Road, deposited their charges
and returned for more. There w^re now eighty thou-
sand people homeless to deal with.

The Navy did its share, too. Lighters were run into
the sea wall, charged with a medley of people, and
taken off to various ships in the harbour. The sailors
were just like the men of the motor transport — cheerful,
chaffing and tender, carrying children and old people
on board and depositing them as carefully as though
they were brittle and might snap. The gallant old K.
lighters, born of the Dardanelles campaign, never
carried stranger loads than on that night.



The fire now had a firm grip on the main line of
buildings fronting the sea. It was the last phase, and
it lasted in its dreadful glory for four or five hours.
A number of caiques, moored to the sea wall, began to
blaze with the heat, and were hurriedly pushed off and
dealt with. A motor car, caught en passage, blazed in
the middle of the road like a torch. And then, one
regarded a scene to which only Dore could have done
justice. Over three-quarters of a mile of front was
blazing at one time — a great cliff of orange and white
flame, and the thousands of refugees still crowded in
and about the port were black pigmies against a gigan-
tic crimson background — poor, puny humanity helpless
before the blind force of nature in an evil mood. The
sea reflected the fierce all-pervading glare of the shore.
It seemed as if the world were blazing. Nothing mat-
tered. One's face was black and eyes smarting, but
everything, in a way, seemed very natural. Was it
only eight or nine hours ago that Christina had come
in with the hot water for tea to say that " half the city
is burning " ? It might have been a year. A new block
of buildings catching fire and going up like a pyro-
technic display caused no sensation. Naturally the
poor old place burned. So would you, if you had to
stand a heat like that. ... In the middle of it all,
with the smoke and glare and the noise, and Tommy
still working like a Trojan with the refugees, I remem-
ber buying a 2d. slice of melon ^t the corner of the
quay and thinking it one of the best things I had ever
tasted. The melon vendor, as he sliced up his luscious
fruit, seemed to have the air of regarding catastrophes
as excellent things.

Somewhere about three o'clock, the club, " my beau-
tiful club," as Sir Herbert Tree might have said, began
to go. That was the end, then, " Finish Salonique ! '*



Flat gone, office gone, club blazing ! What was there
left ? I thought of the club's solid English furniture ;
of the pleasant tea hour; the beautiful ladies from
Athens ; the cheerful games of French billiards with
the A. P.M., and everything else that made life bear-
able in Salonica. Poor old club ! No more dinners on
the balcony after a hard day's work. This was being
homeless indeed.

At this time, the port itself, including French G.H.Q.,
was very much in danger, and the efforts of our two
fire engines were directed to saving it, which they
succeeded in doing. And at something after four
o'clock in the morning, dazed by looking at the gigantic
misery and destruction wrought by this blazing mon-
ster who had appeared apparently from nowhere and
swept down on us like a whirlwind, I began to look for
a lorry myself. Half-an-hour later I walked into the
Mess of 244 M.T. Company out on the Monastir Road,
where various refugees had already arrived, and, lying
down on the floor, went to sleep.

At eleven o'clock the next morning I penetrated into
the incandescent ruins of the town to find the remains
of the office — and found it intact. It was the biggest
surprise of my life. By something like a miracle, a
corner block, including the Bank of Athens, had
escaped, although all around it nothing but red-hot
walls were left. At the high iron doors leading inside,
the little Turkish kavass stood grinning for joy at my
approach. He tried to pretend that he had stayed
there all the time, and began speaking earnestly of his
own devotion, but I found it hard to believe him. If
it were so, he ought to have been cooked alive. A few
weeks later a concert party sang a new song which
said : —

" The Devil took Orosdi Back's,
Bnt Heaven saved The Balkan ?Vp?c.i."



It may have been so, in both instances. One cannot
say. We certainly deserved it. But at any rate we
*' came out "' two days later, and as, for the time
being, there were no means of turning the printing
machine, the gallant R.E. Survey Company litho-
graphed six thousand copies, which were despatched
up-country with a full account of the fire, in order to
let the Army know exactly what had happened.

Then followed a miserable month if ever there was
one. Wreckage, dust and misery everywhere. No
water to wash in. A little petrol engine, installed by
more excellent R.E.'s, coughing down on the pavement
below, turning the machine. Explosions everywhere
as the French sappers blew up dangerous buildings, with
flying bricks thudding down on the roof. And Salonica
with the life and soul gone out of it ; a heap of nibble
with not a hotel left, nor a restaurant, nor any place
to go, save only the White Tower Restaurant. It was
very hot. One lunched in the office off tinned things
and worked in a sort of daze. Oh, for the club !

And Salonica never recovered during the occupation
of the Allies. It remained a " washed-out " city; the
wreckage was too big to repair. All sorts of grandiose
schemes were conceived for its renascence. Perhaps
they will materialise. We shall see. There is certainly
a splendid opportunity of building a great city worthy
of the site.

The fire began at three o'clock on the afternoon of
August 18th, and the fiercest of the burning was not
over until 32 hours later, up to which time the build-
ings of the port and the French G.H.Q. were still in
danger. It is finally believed that it began in a little
wooden house in the Rue Olympos, where the refugees
were cooking and spilt some oil. It reminds one of the
great fire of Chicago, which was begun by a cow kick-



ing over a lamp in a stable. The Salonica fire is said
to be the greatest in insurance history ; that is, it
brought about the greatest destruction by the sole
agency of fire, without the contributory cause, for in-
stance, of earthquake, as in the case of San Francisco
and Valparaiso. The area of destruction was more than
one million square yards and 9,500 houses and commer-
cial buildings of all kinds and degrees were burned
down. The damage was estimated at more than
£8,000,000, of which nine-tenths was insured, British
companies being by far the most heavily involved. The
greatest loss of all was the magnificent Byzantine
Church of St. Demetrius, famed among archaeologists
over the whole world and dating back to the 5th cen-
tury. St. Demetrius is the patron Saint of Salonica,
and is supposed to have saved it from many misfor-
tunes, but his church, alas ! was in the main ttack of
the fire, and on this occasion the Saint's power was
unavailing. The famous church of St. Sophia, dating
back to the 6th century and built by the architect of the
greater edifice at Constantinople, was saved. This was
partly due to the wide courtyard in which it stands,
but at one side the fire finished so close to the church
that one can easily understand many people thinking
that a miraculous intervention saved the building. St.
George's Church, another very fine edifice, which is
one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and
dates back to the 3rd Century, was happily not in the
track of the fire. There were 55,000 Jewish refugees,
12,000 Greeks, and 10,000 Mussulmans. The difficulties
of finding shelter for these at once were very great.
Many were sheltered in camps organised by the Allies,
and the British at once gave 1,300 tents which pro-
vided shelter for over 7,000 people in three or four
camps, where many of them made acquaintance with



constant cleanliness for the first time in their lives, and
on the whole took to it fairly well.

There were many warm tributes, individual and
otherwise, made to the work of the British during and
after the fire. Of these, we will take one, from the
Greek journal Phos :

"The refugees were led on the night of f rightfulness
and destruction with indescribable affection far from
the flames and found themselves under the protection
of an elect race whose name is spoken with gratitude
by those who have been so greatly tried. . . The life
of these ardent apostles of humanity and goodness
amongst us has been unstained and clean, and the
Greek appreciation of it has been sincere and warm. . .
Although there has been but little time in which so
difficult an installation could be effected, nevertheless
British energy, which is the marvellous and amazing
quality of this great race, was able to gather humanely,
shelter and feed a great number of refugees. The houses
in which the refugees are sheltered are well-roofed and
the tents placed in perfect line with English exactittide.
There lives an entire population which yesterday was
happy, but to-day is ruined and living on the charity
of powerful friends."

It is a little flowery, but we must remember that this
comes natural to the Greek who is writing with a pen
dipped in enthusiasm. Tommy blushed as he read it
in The Balkan News. But there can be no doubt that
he earned it.


Two Balkan Days — January and July.

January :
In Salonica when the wind blows very cold or very
hot all the inhabitants refer to it as le vent du Vardar.
I think it must be because most of them have never
been beyond the confines of their native city, and the
region of the Vardar River must seem to them a hyper-
borean place from whence comes everything that is
unpleasant — ^including Bulgars as well as North Winds.

1 2 3 4 5 6 8 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 8 of 23)