Category Archives: Salonika

7 MAY, 1917: Up In The Air

Set against the vast conflagrations of the two previous years, the spring of 1917 was turning into a relatively quiet fighting season, at least on land. By early May the big event, a massive Allied breakthrough attempt in the usual sectors of the Western Front, was still spluttering to a violent close around Arras in the north and the Aisne River further south, but it had obviously failed and the front was congealing into a familiar stalemate.

Elsewhere, the Russian Army’s collapse into revolutionary chaos was having a dampening effect on offensive planning wherever its troops were involved. The Eastern Front had fallen eerily immobile as German and Austro-Hungarian commanders waited to see how the ongoing revolution in Russia panned out.  On the Caucasian Front, Russian occupation of Armenia had collapsed but the Ottoman Empire was in no position to exploit the situation, leaving a regional power vacuum that descended into violent chaos, characterised by sporadic warfare between Armenian and non-Armenian elements.

North of Salonika, mutiny among his Russian units in early May persuaded Allied c-in-c Sarrail to call off his multinational army’s clumsy, costly and resoundingly unsuccessful attempts to follow up a failed spring offensive, and to abandon plans for any further offensive action in 1917.  Russian troops stationed in Persia, some 21,000 of them, had also ceased to function as a military force by May, but British commanders on the neighbouring Mesopotamian Front had taken a while to work that out.

In the face of steady advances by General Maude’s Anglo-Indian army, Ottoman forces on the Tigris and Euphrates had retreated north of Baghdad in March (11 March, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later). Maude had received permission to push on to the railhead at Samarrah, intending to get between 10,000 Ottoman troops threatening Baghdad from the northwest and 5,000 more retreating from western Persia, and to drive the latter back towards General Berezov’s Russians.  After a preliminary operation had taken Fallujah, a key flood-control point on the Euphrates, a series of relatively small but intense engagements brought the British to Samarrah by the end of April.

British forces in Mesopotamia finally had a competent commander, but disease would kill General Maude within a few months.

The offensive did keep the two Ottoman armies apart, and it provided some good news for a success-starved British public, but it brought Maude’s battle losses up to 18,000 men since March. Another 35,000 had been put out of action by disease, forcing Maude to halt further offensive operations and suspend planned transfers of troops at a time of manpower build-up on other British fronts.

The prospect of eventually connecting with Russian forces in the Caucasus through Persia, always more credible on paper than in real life, had meanwhile lost its limited allure for those British strategists not committed to total concentration on the Western Front.     They were still interested in Palestine, which offered a chance to dominate trade and oil in a post-Ottoman Middle East, but that invasion had been put on hold in April after two failed attempts to take its first objective, Gaza.  British imperial forces in the theatre would spend the summer reinforcing for an autumn offensive, while those in East Africa were still being reorganised to incorporate troops recruited from African colonies, and wouldn’t resume their apparently endless pursuit of the last German army on the continent until July.

With advances on every other land front either stalling or stalled, Italian c-in-c Cadorna’s planned attack on the River Isonzo represented the last hope of any significant Allied success on land before the summer.  The offensive, which turned out lively enough to be worth a post of its own, was to be Cadorna’s tenth tilt at that particular windmill, and had been intended as support for the planned Anglo-French breakthrough on the Western Front.  In other words it wasn’t much of a hope, and its prospect did little to lift a mood of disappointment and frustration that touched every section of British and French society as 1917 first campaigning season grew old.

Even the cartoonists were getting grumpy about the War in May 1917.

The Central Powers – or rather Germany, since its allies were now too weak, too broke and too internally fragile to do anything on their own – had no plans for land offensives of any size during 1917, but needed to win the war at sea in a hurry.  The spring had been anything but quiet on naval warfare’s global front, as Germany’s all-out commitment to submarines threatened to cripple British supply lines, but May would see that particular threat blunted by the Royal Navy’s widespread adoption of a convoy system (1 February, 1917: Magic Bullets).

So unless you were rooting for the global spread of workers’ revolution, nothing taking place on land or sea during the early months of 1917 appeared likely to snap the world out of its ongoing nightmare anytime before the US Army arrived in Europe – and that brings me to the war in the air.

Aerial warfare was still the new kid on the block in 1917, and although almost three years of combat had generated lightning technical development in the field, it was still an essentially trivial sideshow.  Aircraft had been extremely useful as adjuncts to other branches of the military, performing reconnaissance, spotting and communications tasks for armies and navies all over the world, and lately coming into their own as direct support weapons for troops on the ground.  They had become infinitely more reliable during the War, as well as faster, more heavily armed and more versatile, but they had yet to make any strategic difference to anything in their own right.

On the other hand, aircraft had always been a very high-profile weapon, giving warfare the kind of dramatic, ultra-modern, mechanised glow that inspired propagandists and thrilled literate populations.  Any significant contribution made by air power – whether supporting massed armies on the European fronts, performing otherwise impossible reconnaissance or communications tasks on far-flung colonial battlefields or carrying out pinprick raids on enemy institutions beyond the range of other weapons – was likely to generate maximum publicity, but nothing matched the dash, glamour and gladiatorial distraction of combat between aircraft.

April 1917 had seen dogfights on the Western Front achieve global star status. In the crowded skies above the northern wing of the Allied spring offensive – the actions known to the British as the Battle of Arras – the appropriately named Richtofen Circus hit the headlines by taking a terrible toll of British pilots flying inferior machines.  Richtofen, who personally shot down 20 British aircraft during the month, was by no means alone as German hunting squadrons, or Jastas, destroyed some 250 British aircraft and killed four hundred airmen during ‘Bloody April’.

Propaganda machines joined the fight with predictable enthusiasm, but while the German press was free to indulge in simple crowing the Allies were required to find more subtle ways to praise their air forces.  The British press responded by reinventing Bloody April as a hard-earned success for the Royal Flying Corps, which had somehow managed to fulfil its ground support commitments in spite of overwhelming German air superiority.

More than two decades later the British would pull off the same trick at Dunkirk, keeping a straight face while turning embarrassing defeat into noble victory, but propagandists in 1940 could justify their claims by pointing to the preservation of troops and the boldness of their escape.  Their predecessors in 1917 were skating on much thinner ice.  British pilots and aircraft did indeed provide effective support for the ground offensive in April 1917, but the offensive itself was a complete failure and the RFC’s heroic sacrifices were, in strategic terms, completely pointless.

They were also avoidable. German success in the skies had come against superior numbers, and owed much to the Allied policy of pouring out tried and tested aircraft designs in large numbers, and then rushing barely-trained pilots to the front to fly them.  Bloody April convinced Allied strategists of the need to focus on quality over quantity, and within a few months better-trained aircrew in new, high-performance fighter aircraft would restore aerial parity over the Western Front, where they would remain locked into a loud but peripheral role in the wider battles.

The land war is stalled, the war at sea is cooling down and the air war is still a sideshow. The Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires have become passive or reactive participants in the War, belligerents only in name, and the approaching nemesis of US might is still some way off.  In the context of a world war, and in strictly military terms, there’s nothing much going on beyond the routine progress of death and disease on every front… unless you count a first glimpse of the false god destined to dominate military thinking for the next hundred years.

During the night of 6/7 May 1917, a single German aircraft, an Albatros fighter, dropped six 12.5kg bombs on north London.  The raid, which killed one civilian but otherwise caused only minor damage, was the first night attack on London by a fixed-wing aircraft.  Though the operation appears to have been an unofficial one-off, it came only a couple of days after a similar attack in daylight and, taken together as hindsight, the two flights constituted an announcement about the future of air power.

Satan’s little helper… the Albatros CVII.

Germany had developed long-range heavy bombers to replace the airships that had been spreading fear across southern England but doing little more.  The bombers were almost ready to arrive over English night skies in large numbers, and to test the theory – popular with some strategists – that they could transform wars between states into brief, long-range exchanges of massed aerial attacks on civilian targets.  The ease with which the lone Albatros came and went, escaping long before any British aircraft reached the scene, served to emphasise the fact that no effective defence existed against aerial bombing in 1917 – so it seemed the time had come for the bomber to have its day.

The heavy bombers would arrive over England within a couple of months and drop plenty of bombs, but they wouldn’t change the War.  Strategic bombing theorists on all sides would decide, much like the generals trying to break through trench systems on land, that instant victory was just a matter of attacking with more bombers, bigger bombers, bigger bombs or all three.  They would still be chasing that dragon when the War ended, and they’d be at it again throughout the Second World War.  A quick glance at the news in any given week should make it clear that many military theorists still believe heavy civilian bombing of one kind or another can be a war-winner, despite the fact that the one and only occasion on which a nation has been bombed into submission – Japan in 1945 – is generally regarded as an unrepeatable stain on human history.

It didn’t seem much of a big deal at the time, unless you happened to live around Hackney, but the night raid on London of 7 May was the Devil at the doorbell, ready to warp our futures with destruction and deceit.

11 MARCH, 1917: Die Now, Payoff Later

The main battlefronts in Europe were still relatively quiet, but 11 March 1917 was a lively Sunday for strategically dubious Allied adventures elsewhere.  In Mesopotamia, British imperial forces led by General Maude completed the capture of Baghdad, and near the frontline north of Salonika an Allied offensive met German-led resistance at what became known as the Battle of Lake Prespa.

Ottoman loss of Baghdad was no great surprise.  Maude had been poised to take the city since the recapture of Kut in February had left some 75,000 British troops only 70km downriver, and Ottoman front commander Khalil Pasha could muster only 10,000 troops for its defence.  Another two divisions – perhaps 20,000 men – were on their way from the Persian frontier but not expected to arrive in time to aid the defence, and Ottoman units in other theatres were too far away to be of any help (27 February, 1917: Payback).

Unwilling to retreat beyond the city, Khalil began preparations for a forward defence at Ctesiphon, where General Townshend’s army had come to grief in 1916, but then changed his mind and fell back on Baghdad itself.  He chose not to flood the land approaches from the south, and though fortifications were prepared to the southeast of the city, on the River Diyala, and on either side of the Tigris some 35km downriver, they were incomplete when British units reached the Diyala on 8 March.

The Diyala was 100 metres wide and in full flood, and immediate British attempts to cross it were repelled.  Although a small bridgehead had been established across the river by the following morning, Maude switched the focus of his attacks to the weaker Tel Aswad position on the west bank of the Tigris.  Khalil was informed of the manoeuvre by a squadron just arrived from the German Army Air Service, and duly moved most of his own troops to meet it, leaving only a single, depleted division to defend the Diyala.  This was overrun early on 10 March, prompting Khalil to abandon the Tel Aswad defence and retreat to protect the Berlin to Baghdad railway station, without which any reinforcement from the north was impossible.

Like all Ottoman field commanders by 1917, Khalil was beset by German advisors, but he resisted their demands for a counterattack and, after a sandstorm had ended fighting early for the day, ordered the evacuation of Baghdad that evening.  British forces marched in unopposed the next morning, cheered on by a local population accustomed to smiling for conquerors, and from that point Ottoman influence in Mesopotamia and Persia came to an effective end.  Now well placed to provide support for Russian operations on the Caucasian Front, or to threaten the Turkish heartlands, Maude began immediate preparations to secure his new position with further northward advances.

Baghdad greets its British conquerors in 1917. Looked better then than now…

Over in Salonika, French General Sarrail’s command of Allied forces on the front was formalised in January 1917, in line with the British government’s commitment to overriding its own generals in favour of the Western Front battle plan proposed by new French c-in-c Nivelle (12 February, 1917: Hope, Fantasy and Fear).  Encouraged to divert German strength from France by mounting a spring offensive, and with little choice about the general location of an attack, he chose to mount a carefully coordinated repeat of the Monastir Offensive into Serbia that had failed the previous autumn (19 November, 1916: Fake News).

There was no reason to expect a better outcome for the Allies this time.  Rampant sickness in the Allied camp and the need to police the nascent civil war in Greece had left only about 100,000 of Sarrail’s 600,000 troops available for frontline duties.  Operational coordination between various national units remained shaky to say the least, and the Serbian element was in particularly bad shape, displaying clear signs of mutinous war-weariness.  Meanwhile the German and Bulgarian force occupying excellent defensive positions on high ground all along the front was healthier, slightly larger and – thanks to air reconnaissance – fully aware of Allied movements before Sarrail attacked on 11 March.

Sure enough, the offensive went horribly wrong in a hurry.  Franco-Serbian units advanced between Monastir and Lake Prespa, while at the other end of the front General Milne’s British force launched a supporting attack around Lake Doiran, but secondary assaults planned for multinational forces at the centre of the front failed to take place at the appointed time.  Efficient, air-assisted transfer of reserves enabled defenders to halt the Franco-Serbian advance within a week, by which time the Allies had gained a few hundred metres of land at the cost of 14,000 casualties to battle or sickness. By 19 March German counterattacks had driven the western end of the Allied line back onto Monastir, forcing Sarrail to abandon further attacks elsewhere, and fighting died down on 22 March with the Allies still occupying Monastir but in range of German artillery.

German cavalry in Macedonia, in case you thought sideshow wars were mechanised.

That was the last major action on the front during 1917.  A British attempt to resume attacks around Lake Doiran failed in late April, and early May saw more inconclusive fighting in the area, along with a small advance around Monastir by French and ‘Venizelist’ Greek troops.  By the middle of the month mutiny had broken out among Russian units at Salonika, and with discontent spreading to French and Serbian troops, Sarrail abandoned all offensive operations for the rest of the year.

So while the British capture of Baghdad at least offered the outside chance of striking deep into enemy territory, albeit secured at a ridiculously high cost, attempts to extract some strategic value from the bloated Allied commitment to Salonika had sunk to new depths of counter-productivity.  Instead of distracting German resources from the impending renewal of slaughter in France, they had left a large Allied force paralysed by disease, mutiny and the all-consuming turmoil of Greek politics, destined to remain an inactive blot on the military landscape until the War’s last weeks.  So why didn’t they just pack up and leave?

The immediate answer is that it was too late for the Allies to pull out. With Greece on the point of a civil conflict created by the question of which side to join at war, and with the Central Powers poised to invade the country from northern Macedonia, an Allied withdrawal would have been a betrayal of promises made to pro-Allied Greek leaders, a gift to the enemy and a propaganda disaster.

It would have been possible to give up on Salonika back in late 1915, when the pointlessness of trying to aid Serbia had been clear to most strategists, but British, Russian and Italian plans to do just that had been vetoed by the French.  The insistence by the French military and government on maintaining a force in Greece was in part a product of their own propaganda, which had transformed the defence of Serbia from an excuse for war against Germany into a sacred duty for the French people.  This had rebounded as noisy popular opposition to any withdrawal from Salonika – but behind the facade of public outrage, generating support for the project among the elite classes, lay hard-nosed imperial opportunism.

French strategists had long considered the eastern Mediterranean, encompassing pretty much everything from Serbia to the Lebanon, as their field of influence to the exclusion of other empires, and intended to fill any economic vacuum left in the region by an Ottoman Empire generally regarded as on its deathbed.  In that sense Salonika in 1917 was, no less than Baghdad, a beachhead for future expansion by a western European empire.

Like the British Empire in Mesopotamia, the French Republic had blundered into sacrificing thousands of lives and vital resources at Salonika, and was forced to carry on blundering by its greed for post-War power.  Given the heritage industry’s desperately old-school obsession with demonstrating the futility of the First World War, you’d think it would pay more attention to the conflict’s most spectacularly useless sideshow.

1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy

A couple of weeks ago, in the process of spilling a few paragraphs about the Allied shambles at Salonika, and I mentioned that one factor working to reinforce General Sarrail’s instinct to caution was the powder-keg condition of the political environment in Greece (19 November, 1916: Fake News).  Sarrail’s armed camp was hemmed by political violence and intrigue as Greece teetered on the brink of civil war between a pro-Allied rebel government centred on Salonika and a neutralist royal government in Athens .  Today seems a good day to look a little more closely at wartime Greece, because a hundred years ago, on 1 December 1916, Allied forces were engaged in serious combat by Greek troops on the streets of Athens.

Armed combat may seem an odd way to go about persuading Greece into an alliance, but world war makes a strange beast of diplomacy and the royal Greek regime’s behaviour during 1916 had been driving Allied diplomats to distraction.  The trouble centred on King Constantine’s refusal to take sides.  His position, apparently driven by an earnest desire to keep his people out of the War (and to avoid upsetting members of his extended family), had long been perceived as pro-German by most Allied strategists, but he was trusted by the British monarchy and its friends in high British places, who tended to believe that the King was a man of his word and would join the Allied side when he felt his people were ready.

Venizelos and Constantine... think Mourinho and Wenger.
Venizelos and Constantine… think Mourinho and Wenger.

The latter theory – tolerant or smug, depending on your view of elite political attitudes in early twentieth-century Europe – had survived the resignation of pro-Allied premier Venizelos in October 1915, and the barely disguised, obstructive hostility of government forces towards the Allied camp at Salonika over the following months, but it had taken a battering since the summer of 1916.

The Greek Army’s unwillingness to oppose the first German-led incursions into northern and eastern Macedonia had come close to triggering direct Allied intervention in June.  Amid civil unrest in Athens, a French naval detachment of six battleships, two cruisers and about 50 smaller craft had been about to land 8,000 troops on the offshore island of Salamis when the Athens regime agreed to Allied demands that it demobilise its army, immobilise its navy, dissolve the government and expel all German agents.

Respite from crisis ended with the failure of Allied operations from Salonika in August, which were ruined by a German-Bulgarian counteroffensive so exquisitely timed that it rekindled suspicion of Greek treachery.  The French naval force was reassembled, with the addition of various Allied ships – including light cruisers, an elderly Russian battleship, swarms of anti-submarine craft and a British aircraft carrier – and another set of demands was sent to Athens. On 3 September the demands, which included the surrender of interned German and Austro-Hungarian shipping, were met, but this time the Allies’ Mediterranean naval c-in-c, French Admiral Dartige, decided to go further.

An ultimatum of 10 September required the Greek Navy to disarm its coastal-defence battleships, hand its light units to the Allies and allow Allied occupation of its coastal fortresses.  Again the royal government agreed, and Greek light naval units officially joined the French Navy on 7 November, but Dartige kept his fleet in the Bay of Athens anyway, ready to intervene if further bullying was required.

To nobody’s surprise at the time, Dartige soon decided it was required.  A fresh ultimatum of 22 November demanded the surrender of Greek Army rifles, machine guns and artillery, with delivery of the first instalment due on 1 December.  After talks with Constantine brought the King’s formal rejection of the demands, Dartige opted to ensure compliance by landing a small force at Piraeus, and 3,000 French sailors, along with a few Italian and British troops, got ashore unopposed on the morning of 1 December. At this point, as has tended to be the way with military intervention across the centuries, emotion got the better of calculation and things went horribly wrong.

French artillery demonstrating passive aggression outside Athens
French artillery demonstrates passive aggression for the benefit of Athenians.

The French force moved inland to Athens, where its official task was to provide a ‘pacific demonstration’ of Allied determination. Some 20,000 Greek Army regulars had been gathered in or around the capital and, despite an assurance of safe passage from the King, a combination of pro-German sentiment, national pride and individual over-excitement prompted some units to open fire on the interlopers, after which heavy skirmishing broke out in several city-centre and suburban locations.  Opinions differ about the exact number of casualties during fighting that culminated in the French battleship Mirabeau firing four heavy rounds in the general direction of the royal palace, and but at least 90 men were killed before Allied diplomats and Constantine arranged a ceasefire, and the pacific demonstration retreated to Piraeus.

Without resort to evidence, royalist newspapers and politicians immediately blamed the outbreak of violence on Venizelos and his supporters.  Three days of rioting followed in Athens, as royalist mobs attacked Venizelists and ransacked their property, a period viewed by Greek commentators as the culmination of what was called the National Schism, and as the end of efforts by either side to restore Greek political unity.

News of the Athens incident provoked strong and largely predictable reactions all over the world.  Among the Central Powers and in the United States, the landing was (correctly) condemned as a violation of neutral sovereignty, while Allied media focused on portraying the ‘Athens ambush’ as proof of Constantine’s two-faced villainy.  The strongest and most significant reactions came from France, where royalist ‘treachery’ caused sufficient outrage to end all hope of Allied reconciliation with the Greek monarchy, and prompted a change of tactics on the ground.  While Salonika c-in-c Sarrail took overall command of military operations around Athens, and Admiral Souchet replaced Dartige as naval commander, the French government announced a full naval blockade of Greece – and the threat was enough for Constantine, who accepted the November demands and withdrew the Greek Army to Peloponnese.

Constantine was the ultimate loser in this ridiculous, if relatively minor Greek tragedy, because it damaged his reputation for honest dealing among Europe’s influential royal families, and so removed an invisible but effective layer of protection against regime change.  In the months to come, as Greece continued to boil on the edge of civil war, only the opposition of French premier Aristide Briand would prevent the Allies from demanding Constantine’s removal from the throne, and the chaotic, protracted saga of Greek neutrality would finally proceed to an endgame after Briand’s fall from power in March 1917.

So the Athens Landing, as it is known, was an example of dithering half-measures on both sides coming home to roost in a gunfight, and a reminder that Great Powers in 1916 foisted the same colonial attitudes and outcomes on Europe as they inflicted on the less developed world.  Though a trivial sideshow in the context of the War as a whole, it was also a pivotal incident during a tempestuous and momentous phase of modern Greek history.   As such it illustrates the point that, while Greece was hardly Europe’s most stable or coherent nation before 1914, wartime interference in its affairs by the continent’s big boys did make a significant contribution to the volatility that has plagued the country ever since.  And although the British played a significant supporting role, and other allied powers played bit parts, the principal big boys messing with wartime Greece were undoubtedly the French, and in particular the French officer class.  Here’s why.

Years of propaganda had made defence of Serbia, a close pre-War ally, into something of a popular and political sacred cause in wartime France (and a casus belli that sounded a lot more noble than hatred of Germany).  When Serbia fell, the French government desperately wanted to be seen to help, and the only way to provide military help, however token, was by advancing north from Salonika.

The French government and military had followed public opinion in insisting on maintenance of a major force at Salonika in early 1916, when their allies were ready to abandon the project as a waste of resources, but when subsequent, French-led offensives had fallen foul of Greek political factionalism (among other things), political leaders had resisted military demands for Constantine’s removal. Ignoring or overriding politicians came naturally to the French military, and the French Navy’s unproductive, destabilising adventures in Athens were typical of the half-cocked attempts to force the issue undertaken by Admiral Dartige and like-minded senior officers.  To sum up and lest we forget, France was a military takeover waiting to happen before, during and after the First World War, already on a path that would lead to the coup d’état of 1958 and the authoritarian reign of General Charles de Gaulle.

19 November, 1916: Fake News

History books and heritage agree that the Battle of the Somme ended a hundred years ago yesterday, on 18 November, with the abandonment of British attacks in the Flers-Courcelette sector that had begun a week earlier.  The end of the battle, or more accurately campaign, was all over British mass media in 2016 – but in 1916 it didn’t receive any of the fanfares or instant retrospectives we’d expect today.

At a time when propaganda reported the start of an attack and any good news about its progress, but left out any bad news and only reported successful endings, the conclusion of an offensive now seen as one of the most momentous events in British military history received no mention in the British press during the days that followed and was only really acknowledged with the beginning of new offensives in 1917.

In a sense, that was fair enough because the Somme Offensive didn’t so much end as fade away, and as fade-outs go it made Hey Jude or Heart Of Glass look succinct.  Its original purpose had faded away before it began, because the German Army’s offensive at Verdun had turned it into a supporting action for the French defence, and by the autumn signs of French success were the only stated justification for BEF commander Haig’s continued attacks around the Somme.  Come mid-November, it was clear that French victory – if you can call nine months of carnage to get back to where you started a victory – was no longer contingent on support from the BEF, and that German reinforcement at the Somme was making further British advance more rather than less difficult with time. Meanwhile manpower shortage had again become a problem for the battle-ravaged BEF, and by 18 November it was snowing in northern France.

Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.
Bad weather stopped play on the Somme from 18 November, and the season ended before the restart.

Under those circumstances suspension of major operations until the spring was both orthodox and sensible, two of the adjectives most readily associated with Douglas Haig, and so the campaign subsided into the ‘permanent offensive’ of trench warfare as a matter of course rather than strategic decision.

I mention the end of the Somme Offensive, not because it’s been this week’s big heritage hit but because it’s being commemorated as if someone blew a final whistle, they all shook hands, the scores were checked and everyone went home.  That wasn’t what happened. Even the strategists at the top in late 1916 were only able to put a date on the thing once winter had set in, and planting the idea of a grandstand finish into the public mind seems ridiculous coming from an industry that otherwise sells the simplistic idea that the whole offensive was a gruesome exercise in indecisive meandering.

A hundred years ago today, the public mind wasn’t particularly focused on the Somme, partly because it was a Sunday and news travelled slowly at the weekend, and partly because Monday’s papers would be dominated by the more immediately exciting news that Allied forces had captured the major Serbian city of Monastir. Trumpeted as an important blow against enemy occupation of Serbia, and as a fatal blow to Bulgarian war aims, it was in fact an entirely token victory with few positive military, social or political consequences.  Though destined for the popular obscurity in Britain that went with any sort of failure, and not even close to a place in our modern heritage narrative, it was part of a crucial phase in the history of a region that is today as geopolitically important as it was in 1916, but is now much closer to home.  So let’s go there.

I last cast any kind of detailed eye over the Salonika Front in the late summer (14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge), at which point the division of Greek political society over which offer of alliance, if any, to accept had degenerated into virtual civil war.  Former prime minister Venizelos led a pro-Allied faction in the northwest of the country, based around Salonika itself, while King Constantine led a government in Athens that, though reputedly pro-German, worked to avoid fighting on either side for as along as possible.  Political volatility and disease – which had reduced Allied frontline strength in the theatre to 100,000 men (from a total force of 500,000) – had persuaded Allied c-in-c General Sarrail’s to abandon his half-hearted summer offensive from Salonika into southern Serbia, while at the same time German and Bulgarian forces had stirred the political pot by pushing unopposed into positions within Greek Macedonia.

The military strategy of the Central Powers was by now fully under German control and, despite Bulgaria’s ambitions in Macedonia, September found Berlin far more interested in exploitation of Romania than destabilisation of Greece.  With the forces ranged against him dwindling as they were transferred to Bulgaria’s northern frontier with Romania, Sarrail launched a second offensive in the middle of the month, though on a smaller scale than the first. Serbian forces, bolstered by French and Russian detachments, advanced east of Lake Prespa and the Albanian frontier from 13 September, and next day British units further east began moving forward either side of the River Struma.  You’ll be needing another look at the map to figure any of that out, so here it is.

salonika-map

The largely Serbian advance retook the recently occupied town of Florina on 18 September, but its subsequent attempt to push north up the River Crno towards Monastir became bogged down in hilly country against determined Bulgarian defenders.  Meanwhile the British contingent made little progress in similar conditions, and was still well short of Seres, its primary objective, at the end of the month.  Bulgarian forces launched counterattacks all along the line from 14 October, but they failed everywhere, and deadlock set in after the weather turned to rain and fog a week later.  Serbian forces did manage to make contact with Italian units in Albania, but were prevented from further progress towards Monastir by the arrival of German reinforcements, while the British advance dissolved into trench warfare on the Struma and around Lake Doiran.

That was the situation on 14 November, with the Allied advance up the Crno still 25km from Monastir, when exhausted Bulgarian forces began a general retreat.  Monastir was evacuated on 18 December and re-occupied without a fight the next day.  In the east, the British kept at it for another three weeks, but had made only minor advances when bad weather brought fighting in the theatre to a halt in mid-December, stabilising the front line north and east of Monastir, where it would remain unchanged until late 1918.

Monastir, the modern Macedonian city of Bitola, had been an important place in pre-War Serbia.  Annexed from the Ottoman Empire after the First Balkan War of 1912, it had been the country’s second largest city and a major regional trading centre, but its economy had atrophied since conquest by the Central Powers.  The Allies took possession a crowded, hungry, unhealthy town, its mountain valley climate ideal for the breeding of malaria-bearing mosquitoes – not much of a prize, and even its propaganda value quickly disappeared with the consequences of occupation.  Divided into French, Serbian, Russian and Italian sectors for the rest of the War, Monastir was now close enough to the front to attract almost constant air and artillery bombardment, suffering the kind of structural damage and civilian casualties generally associated with towns close to the Western Front.

Speaks for itself...
Speaks for itself…
The city's 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.
The city’s 60,000 population was swollen by refugees, and nobody ever counted the number of wartime civilian casualties.

So the only practical values to the British war effort of the week’s big Allied success story were that it took people’s minds off the Somme, and that it satisfied the reconstructed Serbian Army’s need for a victory to establish its existence in the minds of an occupied population.  From a Macedonian point of view, Allied capture of Monastir merely exchanged one occupying force for another and put the city in the front line, and is remembered as a dark deed from some of the nation’s darkest days.  Whichever way you cut it, Monastir’s wartime fate and the stumbling military aggression that sealed it seem worth remembering.  As for yesterday’s artificially created anniversary, I’m not so sure.

14 August, 1916: Postcard From The Ledge

This war has been running for a little more than two years, and Europe is still teetering on the brink of self-destruction.  Ask yourself how long ago the last World Cup final feels, and that’s how long Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Belgium, Russia, Britain and their various empires had been at war by August 1916. Two years can feel like the blink of an eye, but it’s safe to say that to citizens of those countries – or at least the literate ones – the heady, bellicose, optimistic days of August 1914 felt like a very long time ago.

In Britain, despite a warm start to the month, citizens were marking the anniversary by going to the pictures.  Twenty million people – almost half the population – were flocking to cinemas to watch the Battle of the Somme, the propaganda film that gave civilians their first even remotely accurate images of modern industrialised warfare. The movie didn’t do much to lift mounting popular war weariness or soothe increasing exasperation with the Asquith government.  Nor did it silence the rumbles of unrest bubbling under the surface of a society that, though outperforming its rivals in terms of finding a sustainable model for ‘total war’, was storing up sociopolitical tensions for the future. On the other hand the film’s convincing realism did reinforce rock-solid popular support for the troops themselves, and recognition that millions of ordinary people in uniform depended on it was still the key to public obedience in Britain.

The same was true in the only remotely comparable democracy fighting since 1914, France.  The grumbling, turbulent waters of French politics had been calmed by the vast loss of men and materials during a six-month struggle for Verdun. The initial German attack in February had damaged both the authority of French Army c-in-c Joffre, who was blamed for the depleted state of Verdun’s defences, and the popularity of the government, which was blamed for not telling Joffre what to do. French recovery on the battlefield had since improved the government’s popular reputation, and turned the defence of Verdun into a national crusade, replete with attendant mythology (most of which, hero-worship of Pétain aside, still informs French heritage commemoration).  For now at least, a combination of grief, outrage and patriotism was keeping war weariness at bay France.

Given that both were under occupation by the Central Powers, popular opinion and war weariness in Belgium or Serbia didn’t really amount to a hill of beans, and the same can be said of Austria-Hungary. People were suffering and weary all across the central European swathes still controlled by the Habsburg dynasty, but all significant strategic and constitutional activity took place in the refined, strictly eighteenth-century bubble of imperial Vienna, where the Emperor and his court were fiddling with fantasy warfare while the provinces seethed with separatism. As for Russia, its ruling autocracy defined anything outside the immediate royal entourage as ‘popular’, regarded politicians, businessmen and industrialists as enemies to be ignored, and never considered the mass of its subjects capable of a sophisticated sensation like weariness.

Politically, as geographically, Germany stood somewhere between the autocratic east and the democratic west, a would-be autocracy atop a modern, literate population or, to put it another way, a powder keg perched on a red hot economy. The psychedelic patriotism of August 1914 had brought an unprecedented political truce across the young nation, but two years later it was showing signs of cracking.  Bad harvests, shrinking supplies of imported goods, high casualties and now, after months of military disappointment on land and sea, an underlying pessimism about the chances of overall victory were all contributing to change of atmosphere. Strikes had broken out in Berlin and the Ruhr, and the Reichstag (Germany’s largely powerless parliament) had resumed its peacetime habit of demanding constitutional reform.

Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.
Berlin in 1916 – a serious need for soup kitchens.

The military, industrial and aristocratic interests that ran the Empire for an increasingly tame monarchy were aware that Germany was losing the industrial and economic battle, and that German society, though still deeply committed to the national cause, was incapable of the military-industrial focus that might reverse the situation. By August 1916, they were preparing a revolution that would change Germany forever… and we’ll get to that one day soon.

If civilians with two years of war behind them were feeling the strain, many of the troops they were supporting had been reduced to virtual inactivity by sheer exhaustion.  On the Western Front around Verdun, almost six months into the battle, the vast casualties suffered by both sides (as well as the need for French and German forces to be shifted to the Somme) had reduced fighting to inconclusive and largely incoherent skirmishing on a relatively small scale, and the sector would not come to the boil again before the autumn. On the front line around the Somme, the battle begun at the start of July had developed an extra-strategic momentum of its own, with both sides fighting on in the belief that the other was on the point of exhausted collapse – but August was a period of recuperative quiet (just localised trench warfare for its own sake) while British generals planned a renewed push for September.

On the Eastern Front, Russia’s astonishingly successful Brusilov Offensive was still in progress, but had ground into a stalemate of its own. As I’ve mentioned before (4 June 1916: Seize The Day, Toss It Away…), Brusilov had driven the Austro-Hungarian Empire out of Galicia during the summer, and inflicted crippling losses in the process, but the offensive had left advanced German positions in the northern and central sectors of the Front essentially unchanged. In July the Russian high command (Stavka), obsessed with pecking orders and imprisoned by orthodoxies, had taken overall command away from Brusilov and abandoned his successful tactics, so that ongoing Russian attempts to drive on into the Austro-Hungarian heartlands were employing standard ‘breakthrough tactics’ – and failing accordingly.

Russia’s other successful field commander – General Yudenich on the Caucasian Front – was meanwhile in position to drive west towards the Ottoman Empire’s heartlands, but was aware that no significant reinforcements were coming his way as long as the Eastern Front remained active and never considered the idea. Instead he spent the late summer and autumn consolidating his army’s gains in Armenia.

Neither exhaustion nor manpower shortage stood in the way of Allied offensive operations from the Salonika Front that summer. French General Sarrail’s multinational force of British and French imperial troops had been augmented by the remnant of the Serbian Army that had survived the previous winter’s brutal retreat (25 November 1915: The Hard Way), and now amounted to some 200,000 troops. They were not comfortable in Salonika, hemmed in by the volatile chaos of Greek politics, and their governments were uncomfortable with their inactivity, so Sarrail had been planning a major offensive against the mixed Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and German force currently occupying the Serbian frontier with Macedonia.

Intended to drive north, deep into Serbia, the Allied offensive got underway with an artillery bombardment in the centre of the allied position, around Lake Dorian, on 10 August, but had produced only trivial gains by French forces when, on 17 August, some 120,000 German and Bulgarian troops opened an offensive further west. The attack, agreed by Berlin to keep its relatively new Bulgarian allies happy, focused on the town of Florina, where Allied positions were held by Serbian forces, and the town fell on the same day.  The Serbs had been driven back to the Lake Ostrovo region by 18 August and, after a failed counterattack next day, they held a line east of Florina, around the Crno River.

Meanwhile, to the east of the Allied attack, Bulgarian forces crossed the frontier to take the town of Seres on 25 August and advanced to the coastal fortress of Kavalla, meeting no resistance from Greek Army forces and brushing off a half-hearted coastal barrage by Royal Navy warships .

The front lines on this map hadn't yet been established, but you get the picture.
The front lines on this map (stolen and removable on request, natch) hadn’t yet been established, but you get the picture.

The invasion of Macedonia went no further.  Inspired by Bulgaria’s desire to modify the results of the Second Balkan War, and dependent on German support, it was halted as soon as Romania joined the Allies on 27 August.  Bulgarian attention then switched to its northern frontier – and the new threat from a neighbour with its own grudges left over from the Balkan Wars – but Bulgarian forces retained control of their conquests in eastern Macedonia.  This didn’t matter much to the inhabitants of a region that had been changing hands on a regular basis for years, but it did upset Greek nationalists, triggering rebellion against the Greek monarchy by the pro-Allied ‘Venizelist’ faction, which set up an alternate state based on Salonika (21 July 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb). General Sarrail’s offensive was meanwhile quietly called off, and a less ambitious operation rescheduled for September.

The slow death of Brusilov’s offensive the Ukraine and the spasm of military action around Salonika weren’t the only military adventures taking place during August.  Italy had spent little more than a year at war, but the attack on the River Isonzo launched by c-in-c Cadorna on 4 August was already the Italian Army’s sixth offensive in the sector.  Unlike the five before it or the five more that followed, this one was very nearly a success.

Cadorna’s penchant for attacking on the Isonzo generally needed little encouragement – in fact he never attempted an attack anywhere else – but the sixth offensive was essentially forced upon him by the national passion for instant revenge that followed the shock of invasion by Austro-Hungarian forces around the Trentino valley (15 June, 1916: A Very Dangerous Drug).  Cadorna did his usual good job of exploiting northern Italy’s excellent railway network to deploy his forces quickly and efficiently for the attack, and for the first time the Austro-Hungarian Army, reduced to a skeleton by the needs and losses around the Trentino and Brusilov Offensives, wasn’t ready and waiting to pick off the attackers in the valleys below their positions.

By 8 August the Italian Army had surpassed anything achieved by the first five offensives, establishing its first bridgehead across the Isonzo and taking the town of Gorizia.  Having secured these two longstanding objectives, it went on to achieve a relatively huge advance of some 5km along a 20km front by 12 August, when the arrival of Austro-Hungarian reinforcements brought progress to a halt. Cadorna called off the attack five days later, cutting his losses (already above 50,000 men, against some 40,000 Austrian troops killed, wounded or taken prisoner) and accepting the laurels for a limited victory.

Sometimes dignified as the Battle of Gorizia, the offensive provided a beleaguered Italian government with some breathing space and boosted national morale to keep popular enthusiasm for the War at an unfashionable high. It also provided the only sliver of genuinely good military news, for either side, coming out of Europe during that summer’s sombre pause for breath.

As they started out their third year of all-out warfare on an unprecedented scale, Gorizia didn’t amount to much in the way of consolation for literate civilian observers from Britain or France, but their prospects were on the whole far better than those of everyday people from other European states at war. They couldn’t be expected know that in 1916 – but we can, and adding some European context to Britain’s endlessly documented home front struggles is my only excuse for subjecting you to this very long, very rambling, spectacularly generalised tour of the continent’s ramparts.

21 JULY, 1916: Money Talks… And Can Be Dumb

A century ago today, Britain and France confirmed a loan of about £800,000 to the Greek government, backing up a loan of £1,600,000 made the previous November.  In itself, this was nothing too special.  Loaning large sums (and the economic effect of a million pounds in 1916 was equivalent to more than £500 million today) to minor powers either at war or likely to join the War was standard practice for the major belligerents.  On the other hand, the position of Greece in July 1916 was quite special, though not in a good way, and this is a good time to catch up with that country’s unfolding chaos.

As previously discussed (6 March, 1915: Side Effects?), the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913 had left an expanded Greece with a lot of new territory, a multi-ethnic population, some major administrative challenges and a bunch of jealous neighbours – including Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Turkey and Bulgaria – bent on (literally) cutting it down to size. Given that most of those regional rivals were committed to the War from quite an early stage, Greek participation was almost inevitable at some point, if only because neutrality was unlikely to protect its new frontiers from whichever side won.

King Constantine, in charge since the assassination of his father in 1913, nevertheless clung to neutrality for all he was worth during the first two years of the War. Though he was married to Kaiser Wilhelm’s sister – and many of his ministers and senior military officers (especially in the navy) were explicitly pro-German – Constantine was not exactly an enemy of the Allies, more a friend unwilling to do anything that might upset his other friends. On the other hand the dominant Greek political figure of the day, serial prime minister and unapologetic expansionist Eleftherios Venizelos, was all for making a deal with the Allies as soon as possible, partly because he regarded British and French democracies as the way forward for a developing Greek society, but largely because their support represented the best chance of maintaining the country’s bloated status in a post-War world.

Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams... as briefly realised in 1919.
Venizelos overlooks the Greater Greece of his dreams… as briefly realised in 1919.

An uneasy truce between the two sides had held together until the autumn of 1915, when Venizelos, having been frustrated in his attempts to aid the Anglo-French effort at Gallipoli, had invited the Allies to land troops in Salonika.  He was promptly removed from power, leaving a major Allied force high and dry in an armed camp, hemmed in by potentially hostile Greek government forces and susceptible to connivance with the ‘Venizelist’ opposition.

Since then, the Central Powers and their newest ally, Bulgaria, had conquered Serbia and moved troops close to the northern frontier of Macedonia – a region occupied by Greece since 1913 but popular with planners in both Vienna and Sofia – and to complete the picture of circling sharks, the French Navy had taken control of two Greek islands during the first half of 1916: Corfu to provide a home for Serbian refugees, and Kefalonia to provide a useful base against Austrian or Turkish naval adventures.

In May 1916, after Constantine’s troops allowed Bulgarian and German forces to occupy Fort Roupel, on the northern Macedonian border, without a shot being fired, the royal regime’s shaky grip on power began to melt away.  Seen by the King as genuinely neutral, the gesture was portrayed by Venizelists as a pro-German betrayal of the national interest, a position that struck a chord with a population and army weaned on aggressive nationalism.  During the early summer, Venizelos and his supporters established dominance over the north of the country, close to the Allied camp at Salonika, and began plotting with local Allied authorities to engineer regime change and a Greek declaration of war against the Central Powers. By July, Greece was effectively, though not officially, two states, and some kind of Venizelist move against the royal regime in Athens appeared imminent – but though Venizelos was much admired by the Allies, and particularly by the French, the British weren’t quite ready to abandon Constantine.

The reasons for this were largely social, in that the King was personally well known to a number of senior British figures (including the late war minister, Kitchener) and regarded as a good chap with his heart in the right place.  Ridiculous though that sounds today, it was a genuine reflection of the way European diplomacy had worked before the War and still worked in 1916.  The continent’s elite classes, largely though not entirely aristocratic, still had more in common with each other than with the rest of the people they represented, and were inclined to reach diplomatic decisions on the basis of personal relationships at the highest level. So it was that British diplomats remained in touch with Constantine, listened to his muddled (though probably honest) plan to join the Allies one day, when all attempts at neutrality had failed, and approved the £800,000 bribe confirmed on 21 July.

King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.
King Constantine. A good chap, but inclined to muddled thinking.

So Greece remained teetering on the brink of both civil war and world war, a mess of rocks and hard places, just one of the many European societies being wrecked in passing by the warring Great Powers. Within a few weeks an invasion of Macedonia by the Central Powers would push the country over the edge, and I’ll wander back for another look then. In the meantime, there is another aspect of the Allied loan that opens up a can of worms so big and smelly all I can possibly do here is point at it from a distance. Given the undeniable fact that the War was in the process of draining all the wealth accumulated by Britain and France during a century of imperial looting, what were they doing handing out money to a longshot like King Constantine?

It’s a big question, especially when you consider that Britain alone shelled out more than £20 million in gifts, loans and credit to Greece during the War, and if you want an answer you’ll need to read a bunch of academic tracts on wartime economics and then see which guess you like the most. What can be said is that, then as now, a big economy (and Britain’s economy was still the biggest in the world in 1914) could expect to reap rewards in the aftermath of any crisis that required reconstruction, and that dominance of emerging markets was part of British and French financial thinking as they imagined the post-War world. One day, in theory quite soon, everybody everywhere would be rebuilding, big economies would control the process, loans would start to look like investments and the vast wartime accumulation of global debt would pay off in their favour. This is simplistic stuff, and economic historians wouldn’t say anything so black, white or all embracing, but I’ll risk their wrath to point out two things.

First, the big European economies never did get their mojos back. Russia fell apart in 1917, Austria-Hungary in 1918, and the German economy screamed to self-destruction as it tried to fight the cancer of blockade with a super-heated internal production binge. France and above all Britain ended up owing a lot more money than they’d bargained for, and losing much of their grip over imperial infrastructure to the upstart United States, which ran a pretty much perfect economic war, growing its economy for three years before joining the winning side and profiting from the reconstruction boom from a position of unparalleled financial strength.

Secondly, capital forces from rich countries all over the world are currently doing roughly the same thing – pouring money they haven’t got into global crises they hope will turn into paydays.  They are of course operating on the basis of informed guesses about the timescales and final results of various crises, so maybe they should all take a look at what went wrong for their predecessors a century ago.

 

25 NOVEMBER, 1915: The Hard Way

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, European military history is littered with ‘great’ retreats. Some, like the great retreat from Russia that wrecked Napoleon’s army in 1812 or the ‘Great Retreat’ that took Entente armies back to the Marne in August 1914, were great in the sense that they were decisive. Other spectacular withdrawals – like the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ in the early autumn of 1915 or (whisper it) the BEF at Dunkirk – were only as great as the propaganda surrounding them, and some, Sir John Moore’s 1809 retreat to Coruna springs to mind, have picked up the sobriquet because they took place in particularly harsh conditions.

The Serbian Great Retreat of late 1915 is less celebrated than any of the above. Just getting underway a hundred years ago, it had no decisive effect on the outcome of the First World War, and its propaganda career has been largely confined to the Balkans. Yet in a dark and terrible way it may be the greatest of Europe’s great retreats, both for the epic nature of its concept and execution, and for its heroic persistence through nightmare conditions.

I could have picked various dates to commemorate the start of the Serbian retreat. Everything between 17 and 30 November has been cited, and even the day on which the formal order to retreat was issued is variously given as 23, 24 and 25 November. Unless you’re planning a Serbian Great Retreat Opening Day Commemoration party, this isn’t important, so let’s move on to context.

Last time we went to the Balkans, back in early October, an exhausted Serbia stood no chance of defeating the joint Austro-Hungarian, German and Bulgarian invasion it knew was coming. When it came, from the north and the east, the invasion quickly pushed Serbian and Montenegrin forces back. French-led attempts to provide support from Salonika were cut off, and defenders had retreated into the plateau lands of Kosovo by the time heavy snow slowed operations by both sides from 17 November. During the next few days all roads out of Kosovo were closed by Bulgarian forces to the east and Austro-German forces to the north and west, leaving Serbian leaders with three options. Their battered army could stand and fight a vastly superior force, they could surrender, or they could attempt a retreat through the mountains into Montenegro and Albania. On 25 November (or thereabouts) Serbian chief of staff Putnik gave the order to head into the mountains.

Here’s a map of the campaign, stolen from the net and removable the moment anyone minds.

map_Serbia-falls_1915

The decision to retreat was not made lightly. The 200,000 men of the Serbian Army, most of them old men and boys, were desperately short of warm clothing and rations, but they were better off than some 20,000 prisoners of war travelling in tow, or than many of perhaps another 200,000 civilian refugees that joined the exodus (though all these figures vary enormously, as befit guesses made about chaotic conditions in primitive areas). In total this amounted to about a tenth of an expanded prewar Serbia’s population and – given that the weather was freezing and the treacherous mountain passes could provide little food, most of it jealously guarded by tribal peoples harbouring a bitter hatred of all things Serbian – large-scale loss of life was inevitable. Weighed against the perceived need to preserve some kind of independent Serbian force for future re-conquest of the country, the sacrifice was deemed worthwhile.

While their Montenegrin allies made their way home, the Serbs set off in four columns and blizzard conditions, accompanied by the royal family, the government, the high command and most of the country’s civil dignitaries. You can read eyewitness accounts of the nightmare journey that followed by looking online, and I won’t attempt the deathless prose it would take to do it justice, but estimates of the number of deaths along the way rise to about 200,000, roughly a third of them military personnel, the rest civilians. Half-hearted pursuit by the invaders didn’t have much to do with the death rate, and most were victims of typhus, cold, starvation or predatory local tribes.

The first survivors began reaching the Albanian coast during the first week of December, but most arrived late in the month or in early January, and stragglers were still staggering in until the middle of February. Albania could hardly be called a safe haven for Serbs, and the Italian, French and British navies mounted a joint operation to evacuate them. It took a while to get underway, delayed by the need to secure Albanian ports against Austro-Hungarian naval attacks and the Italian Navy’s reluctance to risk its warships as escorts, but proceeded without serious interruption from late December until mid-January.

Most of the refugees, an estimated 155,000 people, were taken to the Greek island of Corfu, which was occupied for the purpose by French Navy units. Smaller numbers were shipped to French Tunisia or resettled inside France, and those with identifiable diseases were treated on the small Greek island of Vido, to reduce the risk of epidemic. The measure wasn’t entirely successful, and uncounted thousands more died during the next few weeks on Corfu.

Those military personnel fit to resume service were redeployed during the autumn to the fortified Allied enclave at Salonika. From there, they would eventually, and in a fairly minor way, fulfil the national mission by playing a small part in the final collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but it’s still hard to argue with history’s majority verdict that the Serbian Great retreat was a tragically bad idea. For all the heroism and indomitable spirit it embodies, and despite its epic qualities, it might have been better all round to go the usual route and simply send king and government into exile before surrendering.

That’s not intended as a judgment, because this was in the Balkans in 1915. If the stubborn, stoic sense of sacred nation that motivated the Serbian command seems a little mediaeval to you, hold that thought, because apart from a few modern weapons and a few gadgets for grandees, life in the Balkans had barely reached nineteenth-century levels of development, let alone twentieth-century. In other words, the Serbian retreat is yet another First World War catastrophe that, while easily dismissed as tragically bonkers, is best viewed with an understanding of its technological and psychological environment.

5 OCTOBER, 1915: Carry On Camping

Today was the day the first Anglo-French forces landed at Salonika, the port on the Aegean coast of Macedonia now known as Thessaloniki. If you’ve been getting your perspective on the First World War through the heritage window, don’t feel bad if this development seems a little puzzling. The three-year Salonika campaign was one of history’s head-scratchers, the kind of half-mad, half-sane enterprise that can give war leaders a bad name. I’ll try to let you to decide if they deserve a bad name, and aim for a dispassionate briefing on a campaign that involved some 600,000 Allied troops at its peak, yet somehow manages to justify the sobriquet ‘little known’.

Let’s start with the why. The French were obsessively piling up the manpower on the Western Front; the British were doing the same while committing substantial land forces at Gallipoli and in the Middle East. Why would they choose to open another front in the southern Balkans?

The first and stated reason was to come to the aid of their ally, Serbia. It was no secret that, once Bulgaria had joined the Central Powers, payback was coming to Serbia, which had barely survived the Austro-Hungarian invasion attempts of 1914, and had never received anything like the support necessary to promote a real recovery in the meantime. An invasion was imminent, Serbia’s prospects looked grim, and something had to be done – or at least seen to be done.

A second reason, also stated, was to provide support for pro-Allied factions in divided, still neutral Greece. Greece had taken that part of Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, but Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary harboured undisguised ambitions in the region. Partly as protection against their predations, and partly as a tactic in his ongoing power struggle with the pro-German monarch, King Constantine, Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited the Entente to send forces to Salonika – and failure to respond risked the unthinkable diplomatic crime of upsetting a potential ally,

Another reason – not stated at the time but much discussed since – was strategic confusion. The autumn’s big plan to smash through reduced German strength on the Western Front had manifestly failed, and Churchill’s big plan to win the war by coming through the back door of Constantinople was melting down into an epic shambles. Britain’s essentially accidental invasion of modern Iraq was making rapid, if incoherent progress towards Baghdad, but nobody expected it to win the war anytime soon. In Paris and above all in London, where ‘Easterners’ demanding an alternative strategy to the carnage in France remained an important political force, national morale at every level needed a rabbit out of a hat.

If you looked at it from that perspective, and squinted to avoid seeing the obstacles, Salonika might just be the place to provide one. This very simple map (nicked from the Net and removable at the drop of a complaint) goes most of the way to showing why Salonika seemed a good jumping off point for a new front. All that’s missing is the cherry on the cake, just beyond the northern borders of Serbia and Bulgaria – the prospect of striking at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

balkans

So much for the best-case scenario, but the conjuring trick went horribly wrong almost from the moment four French divisions and one British division arrived at Salonika on 5 October. The operation had been launched on the assumption that Greece was about to join the War on the Allied side, but Greek political squabbles were far from over. Venizelos resigned on the day the troops arrived, and French General Sarrail, c-in-c of the new ‘Army of the East’, began his preparations for an offensive in an atmosphere of mounting local mistrust. By the time Sarrail was able to send substantial forces north to its aid, the Serbian Army was in full retreat towards Albania, and by early November Sarrail was retreating back to his base. Threatened by both local hostility and hostile armies on the frontier, he turned Salonika into a massive fortified camp and waited for reinforcements.

Once the Gallipoli campaign was over, in early 1916, reinforcements duly arrived, with British forces under General Milne bringing total Allied strength up to around 160,000 men and the Royal Navy chipping in with a squadron of second-line warships. Sarrail, still in overall command, now considered his force under siege, cutting rail links with Constantinople, forcing the surrender of Greek artillery overlooking the harbour approaches, fortifying his small fiefdom to Western Front standards, and on the whole staying safely inside it. By the spring of 1916, a campaign that depended on swift exploitation of Salonika’s strategic location had found its own particular route to stalemate.

There would be further attempts to move north and achieve some sort of strategic impact from Salonika, but broadly speaking an ever-expanding Army of the East stayed holed up in its swampy, overcrowded encampments until the last weeks of the War – long after Greece had finally joined the Allies and when the enemy ahead of it was disintegrating. In the meantime, while Sarrail became embroiled in the equally swampy battleground of Greek politics, a total Allied commitment of more than a million troops over three years would suffer a relatively light 20,000 battle casualties – but disease would cause no less than 1.5 million hospital cases in Salonika, and almost 450,000 men would be invalided out of the theatre with malaria alone.

Hopeless strategic and tactical incompetence, or yet another example of the way offensive warfare simply didn’t work in 1915? Opinions differ, and I anticipate having a word or two about it later in the War, but the sickness rate at Salonika, like the horrifying deaths suffered by so many troops in Mesopotamia, is a reminder of another important factor often overlooked by the mocking voices of heritage commentators. Medical science, like so much contemporary human culture, simply wasn’t ready to fight efficiently on a global, or even continental scale during the First World War.