A century ago today, while the world’s attention was fixed on the sudden mobility of war on the Western Front and on the emerging craziness of the Russian Civil War, something extraordinary was getting underway in northern Greece. After almost three years of failed or abandoned offensives, punctuated by long spells of disease-ridden inactivity or entanglement in the chaos of Greek politics, the Allied armies camped in Salonika finally achieved strategic significance. I haven’t been to Salonika in a while, so before I talk about the operation known as the Vardar Offensive I’d best bring us up to date.
Since the failure of Allied c-in-c Sarrail’s spring offensive in 1917 (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Pay Later), the ‘armed camp’ at Salonika had lived down to its reputation as ‘Germany’s biggest internment camp’, fuelling demands for its abandonment from those British and French ‘Westerners’ in favour of all-out commitment to the struggle in France. The universally unpopular Sarrail was removed at the end of the year and replaced by another Frenchman, the experienced and more offensively inclined General Guillaumat, but his plans for a major attack in the spring of 1918 were put on hold once the German Spring Offensive on the Western Front got underway. The ‘Army of the East’, still too sick to field more than a fraction of its official strength in battle, therefore remained passive while German units facing it were withdrawn en masse for Western Front operations. This was seen as an opportunity missed by Allied critics, and Guillaumat was transferred to command the defence of Paris in July.
Guillaumat’s replacement was the quintessentially aggressive General Franchet d’Esperey, last seen refusing to protect his troops with defensive tactics during the Third Battle of the Aisne in May (8 August, 1918: Match Report). Reinforced by 250,000 Greek Army troops, Franchet d’Esperey proceeded to put into action a carbon copy of Guillaumat’s plan for attacks all along the line, from the Aegean coast in the east to the Albanian frontier in the west. Stripped of its German contingent, the line’s defence amounted to some 200,000 dispirited Bulgarian troops commanded by General Zhekhov, and although widespread sickness meant that Franchet d’Esperey could only field a similar number of attackers, the Allies enjoyed enormous superiority in artillery, ammunition and supplies.
The Allied attack opened on 15 September, spearheaded by Marshal Misic’s Serbian Army, a force with a mission to re-conquer its homeland. Flanked by French units, the Serbs marched up the Vardar River along a 25km front, and disorganised Bulgarian defenders had retreated some 10km by the end of the day. This unprecedented success was matched by an Anglo-Greek attack around Lake Dorian that began on 18 September, and took positions within a day that had held out for almost three years, while Allied forces north of Monastir had crossed the River Crno to approach the town of Prilep by 19 September.
While Allied forces paused for breath, confident that the Bulgarian Army was effectively finished, the government in Sofia came to the same conclusion. Faced with mounting political crisis as popular socialist and republican movements threatened to topple the regime, prime minister Malinov finally got a reluctant Tsar Ferdinand’s permission to present the Allies with a proposal for an immediate ceasefire. Delivered on 25 September, it was turned down by Franchet d’Esperey, at which point the Bulgarian retreat degenerated into a rout and the streets of Sofia erupted into revolutionary chaos.
Veles fell to Serbian troops on the same day, British General Milne’s western flank took Strumica, inside Bulgaria, on 26 September, and the French entered Skopje three days later, by which time armistice talks had opened with the Bulgarian government. Almost 90,000 Bulgarian troops had been taken prisoner by 30 September, when Bulgaria surrendered and remaining Austro-Hungarian forces in the country retreated to protect the Empire’s southern frontier.
The war in the Balkans, a conflict that had been in progress since 1912, was effectively over. The British moved east towards Constantinople and Italian forces concentrated on the occupation of Albania, while Bulgaria and Serbia were cleared of remaining German units during October. After the Serbian Army finally reoccupied Belgrade on 1 November, Allied forces were drawn up along the Danube border, ready to attack into Austria-Hungary.
The most sideways of all the Great Wars sideshows had finally paid off, and the Vardar Offensive was duly hailed by Allied propaganda as triumphant justification for the three-year commitment to Salonika. Nobody was fooled. Contemporaries viewed the Vardar victory as a token success against a beaten foe, and saw Salonika as a colossal waste of Allied resources. Posterity agrees, and for once I’ve got no problem with the orthodox line.
More than a million Allied troops were committed to Salonika between October 1915 and the Armistice, and although they suffered fewer than 20,000 battle casualties they produced 1.3 million hospital cases, more than 450,000 of them invalided out with malaria. Until a final advance that was arguably irrelevant to the outcome of the War, this bloated, inert expedition achieved nothing of strategic value, unless you count its ‘success’ in stirring up political crisis and sponsoring regime change in Greece (27 June, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut). It performed no better in its passive role as a means of keeping enemy troops occupied, failing to prevent the Bulgarian Army from joining the successful invasion of Romania, and neglecting to exploit the withdrawal of German forces in early 1918, when an Allied advance north towards Austria-Hungary might have made a strategic difference.
I’m not, as anyone reading much of my stuff will know, an uncritical believer in the ‘lions led by donkeys’ explanation for the mess that was the First World War, but there’s no denying the absence of horse sense in play at Salonika, or that any old donkey could have organised the easy advances of the expedition’s endgame. Given the subsequent history of the Balkans, where peace is still a fragile, uncertain thing, it also seems worth mentioning that, in the long term, Allied commitment to Salonika did nothing but harm to the region’s peoples.