SALONIKA, 1915–18


British 18-pdr field gun firing from a camouflaged position on the Doiran Front.


The Salonika campaign had its genesis in the bold strategic action taken by the Germans to shore up the Austro-Hungarian position in the Balkans in 1915. This was bad news for the Serbians, who had hitherto been waging war with relative success against the Austro-Hungarian Army since the outbreak of war in 1914. By September it had become apparent to the Allies that only a show of force could prevent the Bulgarians from taking advantage of the situation by attacking Serbia. The question was, could such a demonstration be arranged? With the Austrian Navy a threat in the Adriatic and the absence of harbours capable of supporting any serious expeditionary force on the Albanian coast, this left only the Greek port of Salonika as a feasible base for the launch of such a campaign. Greece was both torn from within and fearful of being drawn actively into the war. Although technically victorious in the Balkan Wars, the Greeks had still suffered a painful experience which they would rather not repeat quite so soon. So, at the outbreak of the Great War, Greece remained neutral, although this did not prevent bitter internal political battles ensuing over which side it should favour. King Constantine naturally favoured the Central Powers, having been educated and carried out his military service in Germany; indeed, he was married to the Kaiser’s sister, Sophia. But the Greek Prime Minister, Eleutherios Venizelos had long favoured the Allies and saw their intervention as a means of expanding Greek influence in the Balkans. As the threat to Serbia became more acute and a Bulgarian intervention appeared more likely, the Allies attempted to bully Greece using Venizelos as the ‘inside man’ who made the initial offer to allow an Anglo-French force to land at Salonika. If the justification was the greater good, it was certainly not the interests of Greece that motivated the Allies.

For the Allies, to generate a suitable Salonika Expeditionary Force (SEF) to intervene in the Balkans was no easy matter. It was only the acceptance of the total failure of the Gallipoli operations that allowed the French to contribute their 156th Division, previously known as the 2nd Division (CEO), while the British sent the 10th Division commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Bryan Mahon. In overall command was the French General Maurice Sarrail. He was an interesting character, a politically left-leaning general who had done well during the opening campaigns in France in 1914, but who had then fallen foul of Joffre and had been dismissed in July 1915. Sarrail had some powerful friends, but also some equally powerful enemies, so the French military authorities considered that the command of the SEF would be an ideal compromise posting for him: it was a serious appointment, but a long way from the Western Front.

The first Allied troops began to disembark at Salonika port on 5 October 1915. Bulgaria had still not joined the war, but there was a more immediate complication in a violent disagreement between King Constantine and Venizelos over what in effect was a flagrant breech of Greek neutrality. The Greek prime minister was forced to resign and a prolonged period of political instability ensued. But in the end the Greeks offered no resistance to the Allies’ presence at Salonika. Yet what exactly were they there to do? When, on 6 October, Mackensen launched his offensive against Serbia, joined shortly afterwards by the Bulgarians, it was evident that whatever the SEF had been meant to achieve had been rendered redundant. Mahon had been given cautious orders from London, requiring him to stay close to Salonika pending the final decision of the Greek government as to whether to abandon neutrality, but Sarrail was determined to push inland anyway. He crossed the Serbian border on 15 October and advanced into the Vardar Valley with the intention of supporting the Serb forces. The most he could hope to achieve was to hold open a line of retreat for the Serbs. When the British finally moved forward, in early November, it was all far too little, too late, and, with hindsight, probably best not at all. The Serbian Army was already defeated, its remnants falling back towards the Adriatic coast. As they congregated in the small ports up and down the Albanian coast they were eventually to be rescued by the Royal Navy. Some 250,000 Serbian troops were evacuated to the Greek island of Corfu. It was a massive undertaking and must have appeared of little real military value as the emaciated Serbian scarecrows boarded the ships. Yet, given the chance to recover, new men would rise from what appeared like worthless dregs – some six Serbian divisions would eventually return to serve on the Salonika Front.

As the British and French fell back, they formed a line just inside the Greek border to try and hold back the Bulgarians. The British wanted to evacuate, but the French would not consider it. This attitude may seem inexplicable, given that a vital part of France was occupied by the German Army, but significant sections of the French political and military establishment considered the war there to be a hopeless stalemate and that another avenue must be taken to achieve victory. In this they were enthusiastically supported by the arch ‘Easterner’, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, who was quite obsessed with dreams of a breakthrough in the Balkans. In the end the French had their way and once again the British would ignore their better instincts in the cause of alliance warfare. The Salonika Front became a permanent fixture for the rest of the war: fighting the Bulgarians for reasons that seem opaque to this day. Clearly if they were to stay the Allies needed reinforcements, so the British 22nd, 26th, 27th, 28th and (temporarily) 60th Divisions were despatched, while the French allotted more and more reserves to the campaign until they had nine divisions serving in Salonika. The reconstituted Serbian divisions began to arrive from Corfu from April 1916. The Italians sent a division and even the Russians contributed a brigade. Sarrail was confirmed as commander of this Armée d’Orient. The truth of Clausewitz’s dictum ‘always direct [our] principal operation against the main body of the enemy army’ was to be demonstrated by the failure of the Allies to observe it.2 Despite all their efforts, the Allies still only had enough forces to defend themselves, and not enough to attack with much hope of success. As the Bulgarians were forbidden to press into Greece by the Germans, fearful of triggering direct Greek involvement in the war, there they would stay in a static oblivion that made a mockery of the fantasies of the ‘Easterners’.

Sarrail had his work cut out just building up the logistical framework within which his polyglot army could exist. Salonika itself was almost swamped as it was required to act simultaneously as a port, the main supply base depot and as a huge entrenched camp. Communications with the front lines were not good, with a paucity of roads and a long march beckoning for most of the newly arrived troops. The weather was also not conducive to the soldiers’ health: too hot in summer and far too bitterly cold in winter, especially in the mountain regions. There were also severe problems in controlling the endemic malaria which plagued the area. There was a plethora of pools, ponds and lakes, all of which provided the perfect habitat for the mosquitoes and any stagnant water soon became infested with their larvae. This was a concern that would endure throughout the campaign. Anti-malaria measures were vital, necessitating a constant vigilance in eradicating unnecessary standing water and regular issues of quinine to every man.

Any stranger seeing a soldier dressed up in anti-mosquito garb would for the first time imagine himself face to face with a scarecrow. The face and arms are thoroughly smeared with an anti-mosquito preparation called ‘parakit’, an excellent thing whilst it lasts; but its tendency is, of course, to get absorbed into the skin after an hour or two, and one often had to smear on a second coating. The mosquitoes didn’t like it, though, and always kept very clear of a ‘parakit’ face. I can recommend it to any young lady worried by an over-zealous admirer! After this, shorts were turned down and tucked up into the top of the puttees, thus safeguarding the knee. Thick gloves were worn, attached by a piece of tape running through the arms and under the tunic over the back. Over the tin hat was worn a mosquito net veil, which, like that apparatus worn by a bee-keeper, rendered the face and neck immune from danger.

Second Lieutenant Richard Skilbeck-Smith, 1st Leinster Regiment

Despite all these preventative measures the British would suffer over 162,000 cases of malaria during the campaign. Outbreaks of dysentery also weakened the troops, especially those who had already suffered at Gallipoli. Morale was a problem throughout the entire army, indeed many of the units were not of the highest quality and the overall situation in Salonika did little to inspire any great élan.

Sarrail was also forced to grapple with a complex political situation as Constantine maintained what might be called unfriendly neutrality after the fall of the Venizelos government. This was not unnatural as the French were very high-handed, first bringing the whole Salonika region under military control and then instituting a naval blockade to force the Greek government to adopt a less pro-German aspect. The position of the Allies was undoubtedly morally suspect in their treatment of a supposedly independent neutral country.

There was a further complication in that the success of the Russian offensive directed against Austria-Hungary in June 1916 had triggered the ambitions of Rumania to share in any spoils of war. This was very welcome to the Allies, for the Rumanian Army was some 400,000 strong and so obviously a valuable addition to the Allied forces. But one condition of Rumanian participation was a Salonikan offensive to pin down the Bulgarian Army. As the British, under the sway of the Westerner CIGS General Sir William Robertson, were still markedly unenthusiastic, Sarrail planned an attack mainly by Serbian and French troops on the left and centre, which entailed the British taking over the front line covering the Serbian border between the Vardar River and Lake Doiran. Despite the complication of a Bulgarian offensive which had to be countered in August, the French and Serbian assault began in mid-September. Although some gains were made – including a tiny symbolic corner of Serbia at Monastir – the onset of the Balkan winter brought the offensive to an inconclusive end in December. Meanwhile the chimera of a pan-Balkan alliance to sweep away Austria-Hungary was exposed by the humiliating defeat of the Rumanian forces by a combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian army. And so once again the Allied Salonika forces were left busy doing nothing.

In early 1917, Sarrail was given the role of ‘fixing’ as many Central Powers resources as possible while Nivelle won the war with his much-vaunted offensive on the Western Front in April. But Sarrail, perhaps recognising that his forces were achieving little of substance, resolved to launch his own major offensive that April. In this ambitious attack, the British Salonika Force, now commanded by Lieutenant General Sir George Milne, would for the first time play a major role, by attacking in the Struma Valley. Milne demurred, fearing that the low-lying valley, which was riddled with mosquitoes, was not a suitable arena for a major battle and instead suggested an attack on Bulgarian positions in the hill country west of Lake Doiran, thereby threatening the tactically significant Kosturino Pass. The terrain was tortuous, with deep ravines, steep-sided ridges and hills rising to 2,000 feet. The hills had been converted into a fortress by a series of trench lines carved out of the rock creating a defensive barrier some two miles deep. Although the aim of the British attack was initially only to take the Bulgarian first line, this was still an extremely tough proposition. After a sadly inadequate three-day barrage, the 22nd and 26th Divisions made a night attack with Zero Hour at 21.45 on 24 April. When the attack came it was certainly no surprise to the Bulgarian artillery, who laid down an effective barrage on the British front lines before shrapnel fizzed across the torn ground of No Man’s Land. The experiences of the men of the 10th Devonshire Regiment, given the thankless task of assaulting the imposing mass of the Petit Couronné, were not untypical.

Our guns had been blasting away all day blowing up the barbed wire and the front line trenches. As soon as it got dark we moved out of our trenches and down one side of the hill to get in the lower end of Jumeaux Ravine, ‘Johnny’ knew we were on the move and our route – they gave us a right pasting. We soon had many casualties. They seemed to know our every move. We got so far in the ravine and then it was hell let loose. Our lads were being knocked over like ninepins. We that were able, got about halfway, the noise of the explosions was terrific. Suddenly I found myself alone. We had to walk behind each other as it was not very wide. My mates behind and in front were knocked out, one poor chap was calling out for his mother, I was nearly choked with cordite fumes, but I was unhurt, not even blown over and my bag of bombs was untouched. I had to go on. I picked my way over the bodies, I could only see by the flash of the explosions.

Private Francis Mullins, 10th Devonshire Regiment

Despite it all, the Devons managed to over-run some Bulgarian trenches on the lower slopes of Petit Couronné. While the British tried to get forward reinforcements across the precipitous wasteland, the Bulgarians launched a series of increasingly furious counter-attacks. The Petit Couronné was the key to their positions and they were determined to eject the interlopers.

They came up blowing their bugles and shouting, I suppose they thought they were going to frighten us. It was the biggest mistake they made as we knew they were there, if they had crept up quietly in the dark they would have got us quite easy, as there was not many of us left. Well, they came up, I had used up all my bombs bar one, and this one saved my life: it seems unbelievable, the pin of this bomb would not come out – if it had I would have been blown up by my own bomb – as at that moment they pitched one of their bombs in with us and knocked us all out. When I came round I knew I had to get out. I then found that I couldn’t use my right leg very well, it seemed paralysed. However, there was another chap there who was hit in the fingers and he helped to drag me up over the trench as it was every man for himself. We left about three lying in the trench, we could do nothing to help them as the Bulgars were right on top of us. I do not think that I should have got back if it had not been for this lad sticking to me, and I haven’t seen him from that day to this. I have thought many a time how I would like to thank him. Going back over Petit Couronné was no joke, we fell into the barbed wire as it was not quite daylight. There were bodies everywhere.

Private Francis Mullins, 10th Devonshire Regiment

He would find that the bomb fragments had cut his sciatic nerve as well as inflicted some twenty minor wounds to his buttocks and legs. The attack was a dismal failure, with over 3,100 casualties in sharp contrast to just 835 lost by the successful defenders. A repeat attack ordered for a fortnight later, at 21.50 on 8 May, in a further attempt to pin the Bulgarians while the French and Serbs attacked to the west, met with no more success and the loss of over 1,800 casualties. The Serbian and French forces did no better, with any insignificant gains soon abandoned in the face of trenchant Bulgarian counter-attacks.

The failure of these offensives provoked a final crisis with the resolutely neutral Greek government. In June 1917 the Allies forced the abdication of Constantine and replaced him with his son, Alexander, who was far more malleable to their point of view. Almost immediately Venizelos, who had been running a pro-Allied government in exile on Crete, was reinstated as Prime Minister. He promptly declared war on the Central Powers on 27 June 1917. Most of the Balkans were now embroiled in the Great War. But still nothing much seemed to change. Certainly, the Greek Army seemed to lack any enthusiasm for the fray. As the Salonika campaign staggered on, Sarrail himself would be replaced after a change in government in France brought in the distinctly unsympathetic Georges Clemenceau as premier in November 1917. Sarrail’s replacement was first General Marie-Louis Guillaumat and then, on his recall to France in June 1918, the highly regarded General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey.

In d’Espèrey the Armée d’Orient had a commander committed to an ‘Easterner’ strategy; indeed, he had proposed a Balkan offensive as long ago as 1914. Now he managed to gain permission to launch an offensive as long as he did not require extra troops. The main attack was to be made by the Serbs and French through mountainous terrain to the west of the Vardar Valley. This was even more treacherous than the Doiran sector, but d’Espèrey had managed to assemble covertly superior forces that outnumbered the Bulgarians by some three to one. He had also amassed sufficient guns to deliver a bombardment that was extremely heavy by the standards of the campaign when the offensive opened on 14 September. This time the French were successful and, after hard fighting, managed to take the mountain peaks. In front of them lay the valleys which would channel behind the Bulgarian lines. On 18 September Milne was required to launch a pinning attack alongside the Greeks to prevent the Bulgarians rushing troops to the threatened sector. The result was disaster and the Second Battle of Doiran would cost some 7,100 British and Greek casualties. But this time the French broke through and, on 20 September, fearing encirclement, the Bulgarians finally abandoned their mountain fastness and began to retreat all along the line. There was considerable elation among the British once they realised that the Bulgarians had gone.

We really are on the move after the Bulgar who stole away in the night. Our patrols were in their line by 9 last night and now we have followed them up and infantry and guns are well inside. It was a very hurried flitting as two deserters told us they got the order to move at 8 at 7.30. I visited a bit of their line this afternoon. They have blown up a lot, but there are still some wonderful dugouts. The wire is tremendous everywhere.

Captain Robert Townsend, 10th Devonshire Regiment

Soon they were in hot pursuit.

It has been a tremendous day. We started off on sudden orders about 9 and have marched hard over two tremendous passes and down to a village called Strumnica which is at the head of the Struma Valley and we are well into Bulgaria at last. It is a pretty country, but the dust on the road has been simply awful. The Bulgar has gone quickly but it has been a fearfully hard march and I didn’t get in until 10 o’clock absolutely beat. However it is all part of a day’s work and we are finishing off the Bulgar in great style.

Captain Robert Townsend, 10th Devonshire Regiment

As the Allied aircraft and cavalry tore into the retreating Bulgarian columns, they soon became a rabble. Their morale was not helped by the unavoidable realisation that they had been following the wrong lodestar: the news from the Western Front made it clear that Germany was defeated and the Central Powers were doomed.

On 29 September the Bulgarian forces occupying Skopje, the Serbian capital, surrendered and a day later Bulgaria formally surrendered. It was a bitter-sweet moment for the British Salonika Force. It had been on the winning team; but the excitement of victory had belonged to its allies. It had battled for the best part of three years but then had to be content with nothing more than a secondary role in the ultimate dénouement. Salonika proved a truly forgettable campaign – and with good reason. Little was achieved here that victory on the Western Front would not have secured in good time. And the cost, for the British, had been horrendous, for although they lost only 23,787 casualties in the actual fighting they suffered far more casualties from the pernicious effects of disease. At the height of the British deployment over 182,500 British troops were kicking their heels, left vulnerable to the depradations of the mosquito and malaria. There could be few more depressing fronts than Salonika.


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