H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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But here we are, three men in a Ford at ten o'clock in
the morning, up on the Serbian Front, quite a con-
siderable number of miles beyond the Vardar, and the
wind that comes sweeping down off the mountain cuts
like a knife. We hope to arrive back in Salonica some-
where about tea-time, and when we get there we shall
be able to assure the inhabitants, if they are sufficiently
interested in the matter, that the Vardar is quite inno-
cent of their present discomfort.

We wrap up with extreme care, and are soon bumping
along the rutty track. It is impossible to take the
direct way "owing to the state of the roads," and so
we must make a long detour, along what is optimisti-
cally described as a really good road. From the state of
the route we are travelling, it is possible to get a faint
idea of what the other must be like. Our wheels are
soon nearly a foot deep in sticky mud, and the car
slides along with a sort of zig-zag motion that reminds
one somehow of a roller skater. We are travelling, un-



fortunately, almost in the teeth of the wind, and it
comes whistling like a bullet. In a very short time,
in spite of fur gloves, my fingers are aching, and in
spite of a rampart of sheepskin rug round the legs,
my toes follow suit. The sky is a dull grey ; the mists
that hang over the mountains swirl aside occasionally
to show their snow-covered tops. It must be dreadful
manning the Serbian trenches up there.

Three-quarters of an hour through the mud, which
here and there is being flattened out by small gangs
of native labourers shrouded in all manner of strange
garments, and we come to the village of Subotsko. It
is as typical a Balkan village of the larger size as could
be found in the whole of the Peninsula. As we turn
into the main broad street a minaret stands out,
sharply silhouetted against a massif of the big mountain
range beyond — a pleasing picture-postcard effect. A
stream runs through the street, and of course there is
deep mud everywhere. There are bullock teams and
small boys in voluminous trousers who prod the bul-
locks to the side with urgent cries, and keep a sidelong
eye to the car that comes grinding and side-slipping
up behind them. There are some quite genteel-looking
galleried houses in wood, and in a sort of square stand
some scores of men in groups, most of them wearing
hooded sheepskin coats, so that from the back they
look like large candle-extinguishers. There is evidently
some sort of market being held.

A sharp turn out of the village and we have the
wind behind us. The change is astonishing, and for
a moment it is hard to believe that the blast is still
blowing with the same strength and bitterness. But
the grass and rushes at the roadside that flatten away
before us show that there is no change except to our-
selves, and even more so is this shown by the de-



meanoiir of the local Macedonians who came trotting
along towards us on their donkeys to market. Some
of them sit backwards on their miserable little mounts,
preferring to meet the weather that way. Those of
whose faces we get a peep as they sit humped and
shrouded, have the appearance of men who are being
frozen alive and detest the process. But in spite of
their crying misery, they cannot help looking pictur-
esque in their many-coloured garments. Doubtless they
are quite unaware of it, and would be very angry if
they knew of it, but to the Western eye they bring
a touch of comfort into that cheerless landscape.

A little further and we come suddenly on one of those
British camps of light motor transport which have
done such great work on the Serbian front. There are,
apparently, many hundreds of extremely small, black
motor-cars all in action at the same moment, and the
sudden impression, as we round the side of a hill, is
of nothing so much as an ants' nest suddenly disturbed.
Perhaps they are swarming or something. If Maeter-
linck were here, one feels that he would be moved to
write a book about their strange habits and ways of
life. And yet these strange little creatures, which have
apparently popped out of holes in the ground, gave
the Serbs the vital help that was necessary in their
victory away up on Kajmakchalan, for no other trans-
port could have done the same arduous work.

Another hour through the mud, with the road
roguishly trying to slip away from us, and we run into
a large village, which holds part of the Headquarters
of a Serbian Army. We are to lunch here, and, with
luck, hope to leave somewhere about two o'clock, but
knowing Serbian hospitality it is doubtful. Following
our lunch, our host sits with us long at the table — the
other members of the mess have gone back to their



work — talking on many things that are interesting,
including the Serbs' great regard for England and their
hopes in us.

We take the road again at last. The wind seems
colder than ever. Half-an-hour or so along a good
side-track and we strike the main Monastir Road — the
chief artery for the French, Italians, Serbs, Greeks and
Russians in this part of the world. There are aboiit
45 miles of it before we get to Salonica, and it is a
bleak prospect even with the wind behind our backs.
It is a fiat and dreary countryside, largely marshland,
and much of it subject to inundations. The mountains
are behind us, and there is nothing worth looking at.
Squashed together on the narrow seat, we huddle still
further within ourselves, sink our chins far down into
our coat collars, and subside into a stupor of discon-
tent. Occasionally the driver beats a hand against his
coat, but that is all the sign of life we give. Suddenly
something flashes past us that strikes a simultaneous
shout of laughter out of the three of us, a shout which
is cut off and whisked away instanter in the whistling
wind. Sitting, a solitary passenger, in the back of a
car driven by a French officer, is a black soldier. His
face is not so much muffled round as bandaged, but as
he whizzes past us a turn of the whites of his eyes in
his black face gives a lightning impression of bewil-
dered discomfort, of golly wog misery, that is irresistibly
comic. For five miles at least, that sudden explosion
of mirth warms and comforts us.

The minaret of a fine mosque comes into view, that
of Yenidje-Vardar, surely one of the most unhappy
small towns in the world. On this bare plain it is
frozen in winter and scorched pitilessly in summer.
There are fragments of transports belonging to all our
Allies as we go through its main street, and two French



soldiers bargaining at a miserable little shop for onions.
Then the dreary road again, as before, with more
chilled natives on donkeys ; and straining bullocks,
their heads lowered to the blast. A little further on
something exciting happens. Standing in the coarse
grass, within 30 yards of the roadside, are rows and
rows of wild geese, feeding tranquilly, undisturbed
by our passing. A hundred yards further is another
regiment of them, stiff and regular as Prussian guards-
men. The sight is not to be borne. With a certain
shot gun which ought to have been in the car, we could
have secured a bag that would have been an appre-
ciable addition to the food supplies of the B.S.F. But
an idea strikes me. Kept in the car, for possible emer-
gencies quite other than this, is a large service Webley.
My friend, a fire-breathing fellow, has a large automatic
in his kit. At least we will have a shot of some kind.
We have brilliantly divined the point that the geese
are in no way alarmed at the noise of a motor so long
as it keeps running. So the car is turned round and we
stalk the geese, pistols in hand. The raising of an arm
disturbs the first flock, and they are in the air before
we can fire at them. With the second flock we are
much more careful, and take to our stomachs at the
roadside, just behind a low bank. At thirty yards we
fire into the brown, and put in another shot each as
they take to the wing. But to our disgust, nothing
remains on the ground, and we take refuge in the car
as quickly as possible and bowl off again.

Over the tumbling Vardar, brown in flood, and most
repellent looking. The two Senegalese on guard at the
bridge peer at us from out of their reed shelters. Natives
of the scorching desert, they have as cold a job as the
wit of man could devise. It would be interesting
to know what tliey think of the Great War.



The road is still uninteresting and always bumpy.
Past an aviation camp, the great canvas hangars
swelling in and out with fantastic curves as the untiring
wind smites and bullies them. Flying does not seem
a pleasant thing on such an evening. And somewhere
about now a refrain comes into my head, which sticks
obstinately there all the way to Salonica : —

" Some buttered toast, a cup of tea, and Thou,
Beside me sitting at the fireside,
And Wimbledon were Paradise enow."

But do they still have buttered toast in England ? And
if not, is it really worth going home ? Yes, decidedly
Yes ! There is still Thou. Damn the cold !

Miles and miles of British camps and dumps now —
millions and millions of pounds worth of material. A
little corner of the great war, but even so there is
possibly far more in this one stretch than we sent for
the whole South African Campaign. And finally
Salonica. The trams are "off" (no fuel), most of the
street lights are out, and the ruined front is a dismal
place. But what matter ? We are near our destination
now. And shortly afterwards we enter a most wonder-
ful and cheery mess-room, miraculously contrived out
of petrol boxes and other odds and ends. The sherry
and bitters tastes excellently. There is a blazing log
fire. "What's the news from Serbia?" someone asks.
"Great news," I reply; "I'm beginning to feel my toes


An unfiecked sky of perfect, dazzling blue overbaniTS
the world as we roll out of the little Greek village of
Ano and begin the long descent down to the shore of
the Gulf of Orfano. We are in a region where insect
life abounds in astonishing quantities and where enor-



mous thistles grow to eight feet high, so that the
Scotsmen in the Brigade whose Headquarters we are
just leaving feel strangely humble as they have never
done before. It is pleasant to sit in the big open
Vauxhall in which D.A.D.O.S. does his rounds for the
Division. On such a hot day as this an enclosed Ford
van would be like a stove. We pass odd soldiers on
the road, and little strings of transport. All our men
are wearing sun helmets, open shirts, and "shorts."
They are really half naked, and their arms, knees,
chests and faoes are baked a dark brown. The shorts
can be let down, and in the evening, when the mos-
quitos begin to bite, are tucked into the puttees for

It is a blazing, glaring, sizzling hot day — a Mace-
donian midsummer day at its very worst. Down on
the sea shore we halt for a little while in a dump, where
D.A.D.O.S. has something to do. The bare, ugly
ground is red and baked as hard as a brick and the
heat strikes off the corrugated iron sheds in waves. As
one sits there in the car, inert, a wandering M.O. drops
off his horse for a chat. I mention casually that both
D.A.D.O.S. and myself had a bad night, in our little
whitewashed rooms at the Brigade H.Q. owing to the
exasperating attentions of innumerable tiny sand flies.
"Keep a watch on yourself," says the M.O., "there's
a lot of sand-fly fever about." As D.A.D.O.S. climbs
back into the car the M.O. says he will take a photo-
graph of us as a souvenir. "Never know what may
happen to you, you know," he laughs. He tells us
that our faces are in deep shadow. "Take your helmets
off." We do, and the heat scorches our unprotected
heads. The helmets are back again within five seconds,
but it feels none too soon.

We pull up at Stavros, and lunch on the "stoop" of



a pleasant little hut on the very edge of the sea. For
some reason or other we both want to make an early
start after lunch. "Catch me doing an afternoon
journey in this heat," laughs our host. "'It wUl be
scorching along the valley. Why not go after tea?""*
But we insist that we must get along and foolishly keep
to our intention.

It is comparatively cool among the trees of the Ren-
dina Gorge, but soon we are out in the open at the
beginning of the long valley in which lie the big lakes
of Beshik and Langaza. There are large iierds of goats
spread across the narrow, bumpy track, which scatter
with great fright and scuffling as we approach. And
before we have gone very far we become aware that,
even with the wind of our passage to temper the heat,
the early afternoon of mid-July is not the time to travel
along the Langaza Valley. The wind that fans our
faces has nothing fresh and invigorating in it, but is
languid and stifling. The dust whirls up from our
wheels and hangs in dense clouds behind us. With the
exception of an occasional goatherd, there is not a soul
to be seen. The earth is one monotonous dun khaki
colour. The short, burnt grass is alive with shrilling,
leaping grasshoppers. Theirs is the predominant noise
by day. The hoarse croaking of frogs fills the air at
night. These are the two voices of Macedonia in
summer time.

At the further end of Lake Beshik we come across
a lonely signal station, and decide that it is time for
an early tea. The sapper who appears out of the little
telegraph hut provides us with some hot water, but
the beverage as drunk out of an enamelled iron mug
is somehow not inviting. The mug is hot, and the tea
is hot, and the world generally is sizzling. As we sit
in the car we are baked and fried alive. It hurts the



British Transport in Macedonia :
A typical road on a summer day.


eyes to look at the track. The glint of polished metal
on the car dazzles like the blinding flash of magnesium.
We realise that our host at Stavros was right and that
there is no sense in being abroad in such weather —
even in a motor car — unless imperative necessity
demands it. It is a wise rule which enjoins on the
whole army to rise at five, get as much work as Ls
possible done before eleven, and rest during the baking
hours between twelve and five in the afternoon.

We look down a shelving slope at the blue waters of
the lake, and the temptation is too much to be resisted.
Why be baked in the car when we can splash about in
that ! We take the car as near as possible to the edge,
undress, and walk carefully over the stones and sand
to the lake. But we keep our sun helmets on, and so
attired take to the water. A sun helmet proves to be
an awkward thing with which to swim, as whichever
way you turn it dips deeply into the water. But it is
better than risking unmediate sunstroke. And we soon
become aware that the water of the lake is of a piece
with the rest of the world — warm. It is a quite un-
refreshing bathe. We wade out again and start to
dress. As we squat down in the sand we become aware
that we are being bitten. "More of those confounded
sand-flies," says D.A.D.O.S. "Can't get rid of 'em."

We push on, bump and roll and switchback along
many miles of track, pass Lake Langaza, with its primi-
tive villages and fishing boats, skirt the slopes of beauti-
ful Hortiach, and after a long time come out at
General's Corner, and so on to the broad level highway
of the Seres Road. The afternoon sun blazes down on
it, and it is practically deserted — a blinding white
ribbon running through a khaki landscape — until we
come to Guvesne with its dumps. Here there are signs
of life. The camps are beginning to stir after their mid-
113 »


day torpor. A little further on we see, climbing a steep
gradient, a long convoy of motor-lorries winding in
and out, now in view, now disappearing. In a little
while we catch it up. The gradient is very stiff, and
we seem almost to creep past the rumbling monsters.
The hillside is shaking as we go by. Ten — twenty of
them, all nicely spaced out ; shall we never get rid of
them ? The dust thickens the further we advance up
the convoy, until we are in a dense cloud which gets
in the eyes and mouth and tastes hot and nasty. We
pass another ten of them, and still we are rolling up
the hill alongside — a small atom engulfed in a whirl
of dust and noise. Each driver as we pass turns a
whitey-brown face towards us. The dust is caked thick
on them all, encumbers their eyebrows, fills their ears,
and gives their eyes a wild, bloodshot, strained look.
Eight more lorries, their engines growling like monsters
held by the throat, their vast bulks quivering and
shaking as they thunder along. And then at last the
officer's motor car ahead, which shows, thank Heaven,
that we are at the head of the convoy at last. Thirty-
eight three-ton lorries, grinding and forcing their way
up a sun-baked mountain road, and stretching along
nearly a mile of it ! Away back to the time of the
Romans and long before that, this was a military road,
but it never had to carry anything heavier than a
wheeled cart. We brought thousands of motor lorries
to Macedonia and had to make our roads before we
could use them. And day in, day out, these convoys
roll along, friezes of them against the skyline or the
hillside, and from miles away one can hear the deep-
toned sullen roar of their passage, like a rumble of
distant thunder.

Down into the deep dip before Likovan, and then
through Lahana, with its little crowd of Tommies



round the E.F.C. and up and over the highest point of
the Seres road, at an altitude of over 2,000 feet. Here
we meet a convoy rumbling up, charge into a cloud
of dust, but, curving in and out, are soon past it. And
in a little while we are on the last stretch of the hill
road before it dips down into the Struma Valley. As
we turn here and there we catch glimpses of a wonderful
panorama, and in another moment the whole prospect
is open to us ; the wonderful wide sweep of the Struma
Valley with the sun of early evening shining full on
the great ranges of mountains held by the Bulgars ;
the river winding up to the gateway of the Rupel Pass,
marvellously distinct in detail ; Lake Tahinos to the
East, and Seres shining white and clear twenty miles
away. It is difficult to think that such a fair valley
can have such an evil reputation, but such is the danger
in the hot season of malaria that now, having learnt
by experience, all our troops except a few advanced
posts on the river line are withdrawn to the hills. The
men left on the plain, who must have suffered there in
this day of baking, steaming heat, are protected by
face masks and gauntlets, so that they look like some
mediaeval survival ; and at night have to smear their
hands and faces with thick, dark ointment. It is but
a detail of our discomforts in our Watch on the Struma.
Think of wearing face nets and gauntlets on such a day
as this ! ,

And now we begin to drop. In five miles or so we
go down some 1,800 feet. The car whizzes and turns,
doubles on itself, hums round extraordinary corners,
plunges down giddy descents. At times the sensation
is more of flying than motoring. We flash past labour-
ing mule transport and lorries stolidly but steadily
ascending. The road is busy here. And in less than
no time we arc at Kilo 70, the great Depot and junction



for the Struma front. Here we are amid dumps and
dust, camps of all descriptions, and Decauville rail-
ways. The fiercer heat of the day has gone, but the
air is close and stifling. In ten minutes I am dipping
my head into a bucket of cold water, swilling away the
accumulated dust, and wondering if an hour or so ago
I really was sitting in the tepid wavelets of Beshik
Lake wearing a sun helmet. It seems rather an episode
that belongs to the far-away days of youth.

Three days later D.A.D.O.S. was riding his horse
along the road when he incontinently fell off it. "Sand-
fly" had claimed him, and he was picked up with a
temperature of over 104 and hurried off to a Field
Ambulance. It is just a little way Macedonia has — to
trip you up just when you are feeling you are proof
against anything her climate can do.



The Balkan Stage.

'* The roses rahnd the door
Make me love mother more. . . .

To ma home in Tennessee."

It was the first time I had ever really caught the
astounding words of "Way down in Tennessee." They
were being sung with great earnestness by a young,
pleasant-faced Cockney sailor who stood near the
breech of a 9.2 gun on a tiny improvised stage. There
was bunting all around him and somewhere behind
was concealed the orchestra — an accordeon. The occa-
sion was the second birthday of one of our smaller and
more exotic ships of war.

"I think," whispered the Commander, as the won-
derful song was finished, "that we'll go aft when the
interval comes, and leave the rest of the concert to
them." And a little later a group of us sat in deck
chairs, energetically grasping whiskies and sodas, and
looking over to the few t\vinkling lights of Salonica.
The sounds of the concert came more faintly to our

The subject of this chapter is a pleasant one ; a story,
perhaps inadequately told, of triumph over circum-
stances. That unostentatious little ship's concert was
only a very insignificant item in many scores of enter-
tainments I saw in and around Macedonia, and only



in casting the mind back is it possible to realise how
much the men of the B.S.F. did for themselves in re-
lieving the intolerable tedium that comes of a long
campaign in a wild, comfortless country.

The story of tlie B.S.F. theatrical enterprises really
begins with the pantomime "Dick Whittington," which
opened with great success on Christmas Eve of 1915,
somewhere up the Lembet road. "Dick Whittington"
made history and largely set the standard for all future
developments. The "book" was exceptionally clever
from start to finish and was solemnly reviewed, if you
please, in the Times. The show was given in two mar-
quees placed T-wise, and what was intended merely to
amuse the members of a Field Ambulance and any-
body who might come along, was annexed by a wise
General for the Division.

The following winter the members of the same Field
Ambulance, the 85th, produced "Aladdin," this time
as a Divisional enterprise at Kopriva, on the Struma,
and in the winter of 1917-18 they (together with the
84th Field Ambulance) followed this up with "Blue-
beard." All were great successes and it is a curious
fact that throughout the campaign the Field Ambulan-
ces were very prolific in providing the best talent.

At first, this great movement to provide amusement
for the troops spread rather slowly. In the early days
it was regarded rather as a luxury. Later it was seen
in its true light — as a necessity. Every tap of the car-
penter's hammer and every electric bulb "scrounged"
for the stage was really a tiny part of the necessary
machinery for the continuance of a long and exhausting
war. But it took time for this to be thoroughly under-
stood, and in the beginning O.C.'s of units or concert
parties had to proceed warily. Salonica, in some strange
fashion, had become synonymous witli the idea of a



field of war where very little that was warlike was
done. It would not do to confirm this erroneous im-
pression by letting it be thought that the B.S.F. had
theatres of it's own to add to its other delights ! So,
like the worship of the early Christians, the early de-
velopment of our theatres proceeded slowly and
quietly. But gradually the movement increased until
very few units of any importance had not made some
sort of attempt to amuse themselves, and one found
concert parties and theatres all over the country. By
the time most of our men had been out in Macedonia
for two years or more the fact that, when they were
not working or fighting, they were trying to make
themselves happy was accepted as a normal and sensi-
ble thing, in spite of what people at home might or
might not think. And then came a further phase. The
authorities, knowing well the difficulties that confron-
ted them in trying to give leave, determined that if
submarines and the difficulties of tfansport and the
viirious other factors that operated were to keep most

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 9 of 23)