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.
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.
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.
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.