I HAVE related in the last chapter how, a few days after the landing at Salonica, it had been agreed between the French and British commanders that the British contingent of the Balkan Expeditionary Force should act in support of the French. Accordingly, the 30th Brigade of the 10th Division, in the last week of October, moved up from Salonica to Guevgheli, on the Vardar at the Greco-Serbian frontier, and marched through Bogdanci by the Chenali river to Dedeli. After concentrating there this brigade took up a position facing north between the villages of Tatarli and Robrovo, with the French holding the range of hills just in front of them, while they were encamped at its foot in second line. The two other brigades of the 10th Division shortly afterwards followed the 30th and encamped on the Doiran-Dedeli road.
On November 20th-21st, however, the 10th Division took. over the line in front of them which the French had hitherto held, and thus British troops came for the first time face to face with the Bulgars. The position which these Irishmen were now holding formed the right of the Allied Balkan front, of which the left wing, composed entirely of French, was thrown much in advance, having for a month past been pushed far up the Vardar, and become heavily engaged with the Bulgars on the Cerna.
The sector for which we thus became responsible lay in the heart of a steep, confused, rocky mass of mountains between Kostorina and Lake Doiran. From Kostorina, where we linked up with the French, to just west of Memisli, our line was held by the 30th Brigade, which consisted of the 6th and 7th Dublins and the 6th and 7th Munster Fusiliers. Memish village, including an important advanced position 800 yards north of it, known as Rocky Peak (Piton Rocheux) , which was later to be the fulcrum of the Bulgar attack against us here, was held by the 31st Brigade, who had the 5th and 6th Inniskillings and the 5th and 6th Irish Fusiliers. Their line ran as far as Prstan. The 29th Brigade on the extreme right (10th Hampshires, 5th Connaught Rangers, Irish Rifles, Leinsters), had detached two battalions to reinforce the 30th Brigade. The rest of it was echeloned in the rear of the two forward brigades on the ridge above Humzali and Jumaabasi.
Comparatively peaceful conditions prevailed on the front of this new British position until the end of November. The Bulgars seemed to be content to mask us with a skeleton force. To reach our lines from Salonica you took the train and arrived at Doiran four hours later. Nineteen miles of good motoring-road led on from the station to Dedeli, where Divisional Headquarters were. You passed through Doiran town, skirting the edge of the broad, shining lake, and then gradually climbed up the wide valley north-westwards,---how often since one has sat on the hills east of Doiran and watched the enemy's transport coming down that same road.
Dedeli itself is a characteristic Turkish village of unpaved lanes and alleys filled with loose boulders. The low, two-storied houses, each in a little compound of its own, are the kind of dwelling you find all over Macedonia. The lower rooms are dank, earth-floored stables or storehouses, where the winter's supply of Indian corn is kept. A ramshackle outside wooden staircase leads up to a broad verandah on the upper floor. You need to walk gingerly, for half the planks are loose. Off this open the two or three rooms that make up the dwelling. These, when they have been cleaned with the vigour which the British soldier puts into such operations, when years'-old accumulation of filth has been scraped off the floor and burnt, and when walls and ceilings have been whitewashed, become quite tolerably habitable. The half-dome fireplace, indeed, reminds one rather of modern villa architecture at home. The furniture, if any, is of the roughest, but the roofs of these cottages are generally sound and the soldier asks no more. It is always astonishing to observe the resourcefulness and zeal with which army batmen will manufacture tables, chairs, washstands, bookcases, for their officers. They "scrounge" the material somehow under the most improbable circumstances, and are amply rewarded for hours of labour in what might have been their own spare time by a casual remark of their "boss." "Oh, by the way, Jenkins, the Colonel liked that armchair you knocked together for me, when he was in here to-day. He wants to know if you can't make one like it for him." And yet all their labour is of no more than temporary service. When the battalion moves on these products of ingenious carpentry must be left behind. With four officers' kits to go in one half-limber there is no room for chairs. But where would you find such energy in peace time? If a castor came off a sofa would your butler, at thirty shillings a week all found, put it on again for you? If he noticed you had nowhere to keep your smoking things, would he sit up at night in his pantry carving you a pipe-rack? Yet your batman, at half-a-sovereign a month, will improvise you a bed or a bath-tub as cheerfully as he brings your morning tea. War is a great energiser. As soon as British troops on campaign arrive in a new place they start improving it. I suppose the dry torrent-beds of Macedonia have been used as roads by its inhabitants for thousands of years, yet until the British came in 1915, not a man of all the dozen races that have lived there thought of moving a single boulder out of the way to give pack-horses easier passage. If it is the right season our men plant gardens. If it is winter-time they lay out neat little paths all up and down the mountain sides with a regular edging of white stones. They make the wilderness look almost ridiculously tidy, like a wild man of the woods with his hair brushed back and parted.
10th Divisional Headquarters at Dedeli overlooked the half-mile broad valley of the Bojimia river, whose bed, however, was a dry waste of sand and rocks. Cotton, hemp, mulberry trees, withered vestiges of the inevitable Indian corn, witnessed to the fertility of the district whose inhabitants had been driven away by the approach of hostilities,---a kind of migration to which, as Macedonians, they were thoroughly accustomed. On the ridge on the far side of the Bojimia valley our entrenched positions lay, and a short walk eastwards along the river bed took you to Tatarli, where the General commanding the 31st Brigade had his headquarters. The Bulgarians were understood to hold a line of trenches, blockhouses and sangars along the ridge parallel to ours. It was estimated that there were about 10,000 of them spread out between the Greek frontier and Strumnitza, and believed to belong to the 2nd Philipopolis Division. Deserters would come in voluntarily in little bodies. They complained of shortage of food in the enemy lines. One sheep had to be divided between 250 men. They were generally men between twenty-five and thirty-five and seemed to be townspeople. One drew a good contour-map to explain how he had come; another mended the watches of the Divisional Headquarters Staff. They were eager to show that they had not fired their rifles. One deserter had taken off his tunic to make him less likely to be shot at.
A rough ride of four miles took you from Dedeli to the headquarters of the 30th Brigade at Cadjali. The French, on November 3rd, had driven the Bulgars up the broad dry Cadjali ravine along which one passed, and through the village above. It had been a stiff action and the Bulgars lost out of one battalion alone 350 men. The French then had occupied the crest above Cadjali and the Bulgars the next one across a valley about 1,400 yards broad, where their main position was on Hill 850. While the French were laboriously building up their new line and had still only prised elementary trenches a few feet deep out of the rocky ground, with no wire in front of them at all, the Bulgars attacked on the night of November 16th with an energy which was a foreshadowing of that which they displayed a month later against ourselves. Creeping down the gullies on their side of the valley, wearing their opinskis, a native sandal of untanned leather, and climbing noiselessly the rough variegated slopes which led up to the French positions, they made a determined effort to rush them, and failing in the first onslaught, flung themselves down, a bare forty yards from their adversaries, where from behind the meagre protection of "scrapes" of earth hurriedly thrown up, they poured in a point-blank rifle fire, to the violence of which the piles of empty cartridge-cases lying by each individual position were evidence that still remained when we got there. But the attack failed and the Bulgars left 300 dead behind them.
The line which the 30th Brigade set themselves to dig on taking over this position lay along the ridge just below the crest. The ground was of unrelenting rock, so hard to work that the French had chiefly relied on sangars or stone redoubts, but these being liable to splinter under shell fire the 30th Brigade did not occupy them, leaving them empty to draw the enemy's artillery. On this brigade front as on that of its neighbour, there was no action at all during November, the only losses being caused by an unlucky Bulgar shell which fell in a group of Dublin Fusiliers, killing nine and wounding a dozen.
But while these Irish brigades were still imperfectly installed on the barren, inhospitable Dedeli ridge, they were savagely smitten by that cruel three-day blizzard which caused bitter suffering to our troops not only in the Balkans but at the Dardanelles. It began on November 27th with torrents of rain which soon turned to snow. Then it froze so quickly that the drenched skirts of greatcoats would stand out stiff like a ballet-dancer's dress. Even down at Strumnitza Station in the valley, 7.6° below zero Fahrenheit was registered, and up on that exposed knife-edge ridge where our trenches were, the biting wind made the cold more piercing still. The men had no shelter but waterproof sheets pegged across the top of the open trench and the weight of accumulated snow soon broke those in. They had had no time to make dugouts in the rocky mountain side; and if they had had time they had no materials.
In that terrible weather our patrols and those of the Bulgars which used both to visit the unoccupied village of Ormanli would be driven to shelter and light fires in houses so close together that each could hear the other talking, and each by tacit agreement left the other undisturbed. It was too cold to fight.
There were 750 cases of frostbite in one brigade alone during those three fierce days, when it seemed as if the Balkan winter were showing the worst of which it was capable. Men frozen stiff were carried in scores from the trenches to the first-aid posts to be rubbed back to life again. Warm underclothing reached the division in the very middle of the snowstorm, but the cold was too bitter for the men to undress to put it on, and it was added anyhow to the sacks and blankets and other additional garments that each did his best to accumulate, a pair of drawers being used as a muffler or tied round the middle.
It must be remembered, too, that the men of the 10th Division were already in poor physical condition when this severe ordeal came upon them. They looked worse indeed than they had at Suvla. The faces of most of them were yellow and wizened and their bodies thin. The trying climate of the Gallipoli Peninsula had sapped their strength.
On December 1st the 6th Munsters and 6th Dublin Fusiliers of the 30th Brigade had suffered so much by cold that they were relieved in the front line by the 5th Connaught Rangers and the 10th Hampshires of the 29th Brigade.
It was on December 4th that the Bulgars' artilleryfire began to be better directed and concentrated; and the fact became evident that they had received reinforcements. On December 5th they started an attack on the French upon our left to the west of the Doiran-Strumnitza road. Meanwhile their activity against us increased and small parties of Bulgars began to creep up the little nullahs towards our front line and open rifle fire. The weather since December 2nd had become extremely foggy.
To meet the increased Bulgar artillery activity, two batteries of field guns had been man-handled with great difficulty to a position 1,000 yards south of Memisli. These were the guns that had later to be abandoned in the retreat. It was only by the hardest labour that wheeled guns were ever got up to such a position at all, but we had no mountain artillery, and unless this step had been taken we should have been without reply to the enemy's shelling. There was a working party of 100 men told off to get the guns away had there been time, but to move some of them it was necessary to go out in front of the position, and even then it was calculated that two days' careful work would have been required to withdraw them.
At length, on the afternoon of December 6th, the Bulgar attack on the 10th Division began. Eight hundred yards north of Memisli was the advanced post known as Rocky Peak. The effect of our occupying this had been to deny to the enemy artillery access to the right flank of the 30th Brigade. The hill had originally been held by a battalion of Irish Fusiliers. But there was no cover there; it was nothing but a treeless, shelterless, boulder-strewn height, and the battalion had suffered so severely during the blizzard in that isolated position that it was withdrawn and only one company and one machine-gun were left to hold it. In their first attack on Rocky Peak in the afternoon of December 6th the Bulgars captured a small trench, but later were driven out and off the hill again.
During the same night, however, they crept along the ravines that surrounded the isolated peak and carried it by storm at 5.30 on the morning of December 7th. About thirty of our troops holding it were captured; the rest got away. This loss gave the enemy a serious footing in our line, for the Bulgars brought up mountain artillery and machine-guns onto Rocky Peak and began to enfilade the front of the 30th Brigade, which was also bombarded from the other side by field-gun batteries at Cepelli. The 30th Brigade had a line which made a salient, and was thus considerably exposed, and it became clear that they were to be the object of the main Bulgar attack. During the night of December 6th-7th two attacks were also made on the trenches of the Connaughts on Kostorino ridge by largely superior forces of Germans and Bulgars, but these were driven off, and all night long the artillery bombardment, strangely muffled by the fog, continued with enough severity to hinder supplies from reaching the trenches.
Only gradually was it realised that the hitherto passive Bulgars were about to make an attack in force upon our right. General Mahon, who was at 30th Brigade Headquarters on the morning of the 7th, had asked General Sarrail to expedite as much as possible the retreat which was now in full progress under most difficult conditions of the French contingent down the Vardar. An air-reconnaissance had reported no signs of Bulgar reinforcements arriving on our front, but this was due no doubt to the prevailing fog. The converging artillery fire upon the 30th Brigade front was now becoming very severe and causing heavy losses to the 10th Hampshires and 5th Connaughts. The Connaughts were holding a salient which was in fact too big for them, and the Bulgars began massing for an attack in some dead ground 600 yards in advance of their trenches, where our artillery could not reach them. At 2.40 P.M. this attack was launched in mass on 600 yards of front, at a place where the ground gave cover close up to our line. The Bulgars had about four battalions to our two, but the Connaughts had already lost so heavily that having come up into the line 960 strong they could only muster 350 after this day's fighting. The 10th Hampshires retired to the prepared second position a mile behind, losing about 200 killed and wounded. The Connaughts, who had been badly cut up by the heavy artillery-fire, fell back too. The commander of the 31st. Brigade, having the impression that his right flank was being surrounded, retired also about the same time. This new position to which the 30th Brigade withdrew lay between Cadjali and Tatarli on Crête Simonet with an advanced position on Crête Rivet. The Bulgars pushed on after us, but were held back from continuing the pursuit by the fire of our field-artillery which prevented them from crossing the Kostorino ridge. Their advance to that point was witnessed at close range by a young subaltern of the 7th Munsters who had been on the left flank of the Connaughts, and was left behind with his platoon in a wood. He was never found by the enemy and got safely away with his men at night. The Bulgars came on, he said, with their rifles slung on their backs, shouting and singing. He saw many Germans among them. They entered Kajali, 30th Brigade's old headquarters, and a British army doctor who had arrived in the middle of all these events and wanted to report at Brigade Headquarters, straying innocently into the village that night, stumbled to his astonishment upon Bulgars rejoicing round their bivouac fires. He was fired at, but got away in the fog.
December 8th was a day of heavy artillery and machine-gun fire upon our new position. During the night we had been reinforced by three French companies and a mountain-battery. The fog grew constantly denser, and in this broken country of steep, twisting ravines and pathless hill-sides, it was difficult to know whether the enemy might not be pushing on upon the flanks to surround us.
At 5 P.M. on December 8th the 30th Brigade were ordered to withdraw to a new line across the Dedeli pass, while the 31st was to take up a position in alignment with them along the Karabail ridge, behind which runs the road back to Doiran, where two battalions of the 29th Brigade were already established. The 30th Brigade started retiring at 5.30 P.M. and as the last battalion left the position the Bulgars rushed up the hill with cheers, firing flares as they came. The gallant rearguard of two companies which had held on to Crête Rivet, the advanced position 800 yards in front, throughout the whole day, under very heavy shelling, gave them a final burst of rapid fire as they came. It was thanks to these two companies that the main position of Crête Simonet was only attacked as we left it. The costly retirement from the original line, where the advanced position on Rocky Peak was lost, contrasts in this respect with the safety with which Crête Simonet was evacuated. In these two companies which held off the Bulgars, however, all the officers were killed and wounded, and one came away only twenty-nine, the other fifty-nine strong. Meanwhile the French on our left, being now exposed to the danger of outflanking, retired southwards on December 8th to Cestovo, their line facing north-west and later to Kizil-Doganli.
On December 9th the 31st Brigade on Karabail was replaced by a brigade of another division which began to arrive, the 31st going into reserve. The general commanding this division came up at the same time and took charge of the operations. The dense fog made it difficult for the new brigade to orient itself, and for the 30th to get in touch with them, so that a proper liaison was not made before the 10th. On that day the French were heavily attacked on their new line at Cestovo while their left again was being rapidly driven back down the Vardar on Guevgheli. By the afternoon of the next day the Bulgars were pressing so hard upon the French that they had fallen back to a front stretching from Furka through Bogdanci to Guevgheli, and it was the 10th Division's turn for its flank to be left in the air. The Bulgars furthermore were now also trying to get round our right flank and so down to Lake Doiran to cut our only road of retreat where it reaches the north-west end of the Lake. Fortunately the pathlessness of the mountains prevented that attempt from succeeding.
But Dedeli had to be evacuated hastily on the night of the 11th or it would be too late. Accordingly a general order was given for the 10th Division to retire across the Greek frontier. It was not, of course, sure whether the Bulgar pursuit would stop at this political obstacle, and there was further a strong report that the Greeks were coming in against us, and that the communications of the division with Salonica were anything but safe. The 31st Brigade, already concentrated, marched back first, then the 30th Brigade was withdrawn south of Doiran and bivouacked near the lake.
A good deal of confusion inevitably attended these rapid movements of retreat. Thus at 1 A.M. on the morning of the 12th when the 30th Brigade received orders at Dedeli to retire on Doiran, one battalion had all its company cooks (about fifteen men) sleeping together in a house. Dedeli, like all Macedonian villages, is a straggling place, and when the order was being circulated, the cooks' house was overlooked. So, huddled round their comfortable fire, they slept on undisturbed till daylight, when on going to the door, they were horrified to find the street full of Bulgars. The cooks seized their rifles, and the Bulgars at this sign of what looked like hostile action, took cover and opened a characteristically ill-aimed fire, of which the cooks took advantage to make a bolt for it as hard as they could go down the road to Doiran under cover of the fog, and all rejoined their battalion safely.
The Bulgars advancing down the Strumnitza road stopped just short of the Greek frontier stone on the outskirts of Doiran town, the 30th Brigade Headquarters only leaving Doiran about ten minutes before their arrival.
The 30th Brigade now came down to Salonica by train, and a remark that indicates the conditions prevalent at the time was made by the Greek stationmaster at Doiran, as the first trainload of British soldiers went out. "I am pro-Ally," he said, "but the man at Kilindir is pro-German, and probably won't allow your train to pass."
The other brigades came down by road, and the worn-out 10th Division then went into camp at Kapudjilar just outside Salonica, until it was moved up to hold the line along the lakes and across to Stavros, which was made part of the entrenched camp. So ended the British share in the retreat from Serbia.
Our first encounter with the Bulgars as enemies had not been one to fill us with unmingled satisfaction, but at the same time there were many sound reasons for considering that the 10th Division had made the best of very unfavourable conditions. To begin with, it had been very heavily outnumbered. The usual estimate at the time of the strength which the Bulgars brought to bear upon us was four divisions, which would have meant about 100,000 men. This is no doubt exaggerated, but where the main attack was made upon the 30th Brigade, they were probably four to one. and elsewhere they were two to one. They had the advantage of possessing much mountain artillery, which in this rough and broken country was far more effective than our field-guns.
The explanation of the arrival of these increased Bulgarian numbers upon a front which had been supposed to be held by almost a skeleton force, is that after the enemy's capture of Monastir, the troops that had been held in reserve for that operation, and were now no longer needed, were brought down from Uskub along the Strumnitza road onto our front.
Except for the guns which had to be abandoned at Memisli, little material was left behind in the retreat of the 10th Division; a certain amount of ammunition was lost, especially at Crête Simonet, and perhaps one day's rations in all were abandoned. All the transport was got away. The fog played a very important part in these operations. It stopped all aerial scouting, and greatly interfered with artillery observation. It kept on constantly gathering and lifting alternately in a way that made this confusing country, where every feature is the twin image of a hundred others, unusually baffling for an outnumbered force, unaccustomed to the ground. The fog favoured us in so far as but for it the enemy might have pushed on faster and shelled us heavily from commanding positions as we fell back. On the other hand, it helped him in his infantry attacks, for several times our men held their fire when Bulgars loomed up through the mist, hesitating to shoot lest they might be detachments of our own troops.
And now the principal objective which the Allied public, at any rate, and even the majority of the fighting soldiers concerned, had ascribed to our expedition to the Balkans,---that of the rescue of Serbia from her invaders,---had come unmistakably to naught. Monastir, the last town in New Serbia, and one of the coveted prizes to gain which Bulgaria joined in the war, had fallen into the hands of the enemy. The whole of the national territory was overrun, and the Serbian Army was no more than a disorganised multitude of starving men streaming across the savage mountains of Albania towards the Adriatic, and falling by thousands in the snow to die on the way. With the disappearance of what was popularly regarded as the primary object of the expedition had vanished, too, the hopes, unpractical though they had always been, of a rapid advance on Sofia, or at any rate to some point on the trans-Balkan railway, where a barrier could be erected to cut off the through communication by train between Germany and Turkey, which was now complete and which would aggravate considerably our already unsatisfactory position at the Dardanelles. The point we have now reached, therefore, marks an important stage in the story of the Salonica campaign. It is the beginning of a long spell of military inactivity, but of great labour of preparation for renewed action against our enemies,---German, Austrian, Bulgar and Turk,---who were unfortunately able during the same period to establish themselves in most formidable defensive positions to guard what they had won.
The Bulgar pursuit of the retreating Allies was not carried across the Greek frontier. It stopped on a line from Guevgheli to Doiran. It was half expected at the time that the enemy might keep on with his advance and try to drive the Allies into the sea. But there were several good reasons against it. For one thing our Army was falling back on to reinforcements which had arrived, and had had time during the recent operations to receive their full equipment of guns and material. Another explanation depends upon the theory that the Bulgars may have had a secret convention with the Greeks about entering their territory at that time.
But physical conditions alone were enough to hold up the Bulgars at the southern frontier of Serbia. They were as exhausted as the French; they, too, had suffered from the bitter weather conditions, and they had had heavy losses in their successive attacks upon the series of entrenched positions which had protected the French retreat. Moreover the lack of available routes of march was an obstacle even more formidable for the Bulgars than it had been for the French, for the latter had naturally blown up the tunnels and bridges as they came down the railway, so that the enemy could only use the tracks from village to village, which were in an appalling condition and quite incapable of carrying the supply columns and artillery of an army. To press forward yet another fifty miles with exhausted infantry and only mountain artillery upon an adversary close up against his sea-base with the heavy guns of warships behind to support him would have been a rash undertaking. The Bulgars had won the parts of Macedonia they coveted, and they could afford for the present to pause.
And now the question naturally arose, what was to become of the Allied Expeditionary Force? For the present there was no more Serbia and no more Serbian Army except a disorganised mass of men straggling across Albania into exile. It became necessary to consider the Near Eastern situation as a whole. The Salonica Expedition had an essential relation with the campaigns at Gallipoli (which was now on the eve of being evacuated) and in Egypt. General Munro and Lord Kitchener had already successively visited both the Dardanelles and Salonica to examine the situation on the spot, and to consider the bearings of the new Balkan enterprise on the projected evacuation of the former zone of operations. One scheme that had been mooted at that time was the withdrawal of our forces from the Balkans to make yet another landing at the Dardanelles, in a final attempt to get through. As a result of Lord Kitchener's visit, however, it had been decided that it was the Dardanelles that should be abandoned.
It was still necessary to take into consideration Egypt, under whose command the British contingent at Salonica, as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, was. Egypt at that time was exposed to the possibility of attack from both sides, and it might be debated whether at any rate the British troops in the Balkans could not be more profitably used there. But strong arguments could be advanced against that scheme. For one thing, if Salonica were to continue to be held in such a way that the port should be secure from long-range bombardment, in case of an enemy advance, the line of the defences would have to be so long that it could not be maintained unless the full number of Allied troops then in the Balkans remained there. Evacuation might, too, have entailed the destruction of a large quantity of stores, to keep them from falling into the hands of the enemy, as happened at the Dardanelles. These, and doubtless many other considerations, had all to be taken into account by the Allied Governments. And the issue of their deliberations was that the joint expedition to the Balkans should remain. General Sarrail accordingly proceeded to create for himself a firmly established and protected base for future operations by the construction of the "entrenched camp of Salonica."
THE entrenched camp of Salonica is the most conspicuous of the many great engineering works which the Allied Armies have carried out in Macedonia. It has made what was, on the landward side, an open town, into one of the principal fortresses of the world, and so thoroughly has the work been done that such will Salonica permanently remain on condition that the trenches are kept from decaying under the weather and that the government responsible for Salonica disposes of enough men and guns to garrison the long line.
For the first four months of 1916 the building of the entrenched camp engrossed the energies of the Anglo-French Army at Salonica, assisted by a good deal of native labour. The ground behind the town lent itself to the construction of a strong defensive position.
Eight miles to the north of the city there is a high ridge running east and west which forms a natural rampart dominating the broad plain beyond. The work of fortifying this ridge and extending the position on each flank to the sea was carried on under completely peaceful conditions, the enemy remaining inactive thirty miles away where he had halted after our retreat from Serbia, and where he, too, began to dig himself in.
The trenches of the Salonica defences were sited and re-sited with the most painstaking care. General Sarrail laid great stress upon a thorough and elaborate system of wiring. Roads and light Decauville railways were laid to carry men and ammunition rapidly to different parts of the front. Great was the labour expended. Some of the works that I have visited there are remarkable examples of strength and convenience combined with complete concealment.
The whole of the perimeter is not, of course, covered by a continuous trench-line. There are sectors which Nature has already made sufficiently impassable, such as the marshes along the lower banks of the Vardar, south of the bridge on the Monastir road. About twenty-five miles of the eastern end of the defences, too,---which is the British sector,---are covered by the broad lakes of Langaza and Beshik.
Though it is by no means likely that these elaborate defences will ever be attacked, provided that the existing conditions in the Balkans continue, with the Allies holding a series of strong lines much further up-country and having the initiative of the fighting in their hands, it is impossible, of course, to describe in any detail the defences of Salonica, despite the fact that the enemy, with his all-pervading Balkan spy system, probably knows as much about them as any body. But there are a few interesting facts about them that are common knowledge, and indeed within the reach of any one who has a good map, such as the Austrian one, which we use.
During the first four months of 1916, however, a German push southward seemed quite possible.
Enemy agencies announced with a reiteration that became more and more unconvincing that the Allies at Salonica would be overwhelmed and that Germany would extend her sphere of influence to the limits of the Balkan Peninsula. "You will be driven into the sea," prophesied, with sinister satisfaction, the royalist General Dousmanis, Chief of the General Staff at Athens, "and you will not have time even to cry for mercy.
In presence of the possibility that Salonica might have to resist a siege, the defences of the town were devised on three main principles:
1. To keep the town and harbour as safe as possible from long-range enemy bombardment.
2. To make the defended front of such extent that the enemy would need to dispose of large forces to attack it.
3. To have both wings of the line of defence strongly supported, so as to ensure that the enemy should not be able to take the town by an encircling attack from the mouth of the Vardar on one side and Karaburnu on the other, imitating Napoleon's successful tactics at the siege of Toulon (where he captured the town by first taking the fort of Malbosquet that commanded the harbor, and by posting French guns there which cut the garrison off from the support of the fleet).
A front that is of so varied a nature as that of the entrenched camp is clearly not all of the same importance from the defender's point of view. A glance at the map will show one, for instance, that the only way for an enemy attack to reach the most easterly sector, at Stavros, is by following the road from the mouth of the Struma along the shore of the Gulf of Orfano; that is the one route along which heavy artillery and wheeled transport could pass. And this road could be absolutely covered by the big guns of the British monitors in the Gulf of Orfano, so that the enemy, if he came that way, would have to run the gauntlet of twelve-inch shrapnel.
The whole of this sector, however, was at first under the disadvantage of having very bad communications with Salonica. Stavros was supplied by sea round the Chalcidice Peninsula, but a lot of work in the way of building piers had to be done there before this was satisfactory, and in case a Bulgarian attack had taken place German submarines would no doubt have done their best to interrupt this sea-transport. Since the defences of Salonica were completed, however, some excellent roads have been made connecting the town with this eastern sector, and now lie there, monuments of British energy in valleys that are once more deserted. Macedonia, in fact, is the only one of the world's theatres of war where military operations have done more good than harm. We have tamed the wilderness and civilised the waste, reclaimed the barren and opened up the inaccessible. Along steep gorges where two years ago a laden donkey could hardly find a path there now winds the white ribbon of a first-class road with carefully calculated gradients, stone bridges and culverts, sign-posts, parapets and drainage-gutters, and big English motor-cars travel at speed where even the plodding peasant used to make his way with difficulty.
But in the early days, before these means of communication existed, and when an attack was possible at any moment, the principle that had to be kept in view for this right-hand sector of the line was that too many troops should not be immobilised there as a permanent garrison, for they might be needed to reinforce some other part of the long perimeter. So the system then adopted was to have at the Stavros end of the defences a series of fortified posts capable of stopping a weak enemy attack and of keeping alert watch and ward. Behind these outposts was a stronger line upon which reserves from Salonica could be concentrated to offer stouter resistance in case the enemy attack should develop into a serious one.
The next sector westwards of the Salonica lines was a very important one because into it runs the Seres road, which comes down from the Struma valley and was the most convenient route for the enemy to use for his siege artillery and transport. The road entered the entrenched camp at the village of Aivatli, only eight miles from Salonica, a point that was strongly fortified by a Scottish brigade. Fortunately,---as regards a hostile attack, though later on the disadvantage of it was felt keenly by ourselves,---the Seres road has no railway running alongside it, and for the last ten miles of its approach to our lines it crosses a perfectly flat plain which our positions on the hills completely dominate.
One used to ride about on those heights and imagine the wonderful spectacle that would be seen from there if the enemy ever did come down to the attack. The broad flat plain stretched away from below your feet till it faded into the winter mists, out of which rose the first of the four parallel hill-ranges that cross the road to Seres and make the journey to or from the Struma a weary switchback of steep ridges and deep valleys. It was like looking from the battlements of a mediæval castle, and the enemy would have been able to conceal nothing from your view. With field-glasses you could have watched his camps and depots beyond the reach even of our naval guns. In fact, had the Bulgarians advanced on Salonica we should have been in exactly the same position towards them as the Turks at Achi-Baba occupied with regard to us.
With such a field of fire in front of your defences the question was more than usually debatable whether or not advanced positions should be occupied. I will not say what conclusion was come to, nor whether, among other possible advanced posts, it was decided to hold that conspicuous and inconvenient height of "Gibraltar," which towers, a lonely landmark for miles round, out of the desolate flat plain I have just been describing.
Gibraltar lay too far out for it to be included in our main line. Its shape is indicated by its nickname; it is an isolated barren, treeless hill, that falls almost sheer on one side.
The remaining sector of the Salonica lines, lying between the Galliko and Vardar rivers, is on a rolling plain. The French put a vast amount of work into fortifying this sector. There are cemented machinegun emplacements, dugouts of unusual depth and solidity, broad bands of wire twisting everywhere across the grass, and forming compartments each swept by cross-fire from the flanks, so that a breakthrough at any point would only mean penetration into more formidable defences beyond. Behind the line, too, are many ravines, which provide natural shelter for ammunition dumps, and further back there are, of course, whole systems of reserve trenches.
The circumstance which made all these works so strong was that they were constructed, not only with all the experience of modern warfare that their designers had gained in France, but also under conditions of absolute peace. The scientific ideas underlying the plan of the defences were accordingly able to be developed to a high degree of perfection, the second line not being the haphazard product of the varying fortunes of battle, but made to correspond fully to the tactical needs of the first. In fact, the defences of Salonica may be regarded as some of -the most formidable in the world.
AT the same time as this vast scheme of defence was being carried out, the network of roads with which we have changed the face of Macedonia was being steadily woven. You best realise the immense extent of the system of highways with which the Allies have endowed the deserted hinterland of Salonica when you fly above it in an aeroplane. Main roads, meshed like a spider's web below you, run for miles in directions where before we came there was not even a goat-track. Often they take the form of a broad ledge blasted out of the sheer rock. There are bridges that will support a three-ton motor-lorry over every torrent; there are stone culverts to carry off the spates of spring.
You will notice artesian wells that pump water by the thousand gallons an hour; and supply-dumps with their mountains of yellow packing-cases. As for buildings in corrugated iron of every sort, from bathhouses to general hospitals, there is a townful of them. And this scene, though densest and largest around Salonica, is reproduced on smaller scales at several points up-country as far as Corps Headquarters near the front. Every feature in it had to be constructed from the beginning. When we first got to Salonica no lighter could even reach the shore except at the Quay. By the present time, there are twelve piers at which unloading is almost constantly going on. Where the Main Supply Base now stands,---a dry, clean expanse of gravel,---was then a sort of Greek remount lines, just a fetid mass of mud and manure, and the first motor-lorry that ventured along what have since become in the wettest weather firm, hard roads had to be pulled out by another with ropes, bogged to the axles.
Work,---any amount of it,---and all of it work that was absolutely preliminary to the idea of undertaking operations. You cannot begin operations in the field when your Main Supply Base is sinking into a swamp, nor when there is not a road in the country capable of bearing up under the Army's motor-lorry traffic for two wet days together. We had first to build up the necessary elements of modern civilisation in Macedonia before we could begin to "get on with the war."
But the Salonica Army did not by any means lose sight of the enemy while these necessary defensive works were being carried out. We had by now come to an arrangement with the Greeks about moving our troops as military needs required into the region between Salonica and the Greek frontier, and mounted .troops with their headquarters at Kilkish were keeping daily watch upon the Bulgars and the Germans by Lake Doiran, and eastwards along the line of the Krusha-Balkan. I spent some time with them going out with their patrols, which played a game of hide-and-seek,---the "seek" chiefly on our side,---with the German Uhlan cavalry, who were reciprocally full of inquisitiveness about us. A lovely country for the Balkans was this debatable land into which we rode, a region of wooded, irregular hills, from whose heights could be seen mile upon mile of the Struma plain with its shining river on the one side, and the hilly country beyond Lake Doiran on the other. At such look-outs as the Gola ridge, to which patrols, both of the Germans and ourselves, went every day, always trying to ambush each other, you could sit among the bushes and through your glasses watch life in the enemy's lines as comfortably as from a grand-stand. Here, down the same Strumnitza road as the 10th Division went up into Serbia in November, 1915, comes a German motor-car, making for Doiran town, which lies below you by the side of its black, Norwegian-looking lake. There are convoys of pack-animals, too, heading for that supply-dump where piled tin cases lie flashing in the sun like heliographs. It was just the sort of view as you may have from the North Downs of an English main road on a summer's day. Occasionally the French would send up a couple of 8-inch guns, mounted on an armoured train to steam along the Karasuli-Kilindir loop-line and disturb these peaceful enemy activities, and one feature of the scene in consequence was always a German observation-balloon, looking like a ghostly grub in the sky, as it hung there on the look-out for the flashes of this elusive artillery, which always opened fire from a different place.
Meanwhile, the infantry back in the Salonica area was smartening up its soldierly qualities again after three months of digging by carrying out brigade route-marches with tactical exercises on the way. The change was a welcome one from the confinement of the narrow gullies into which the men had been tucked away for the last four months while they carved endless trenches in Salonica's stony rampart of hills, and they marched out of the gaps in the wire as gaily as boys on a holiday. For while no soldiers dig better than the British, none hate it more.
The day's programme of twenty miles of footslogging under a hot sun in a permanent fog of white dust, each man with a heavy pack on his back and a separate halo of flies round his head, could hardly be called relaxation, but the relief from the drudgery of swinging pick and shovel was enough to make the labour a delight. I used to find great pleasure myself in accompanying these route-marches (I admit that it might have been otherwise if I had not had a horse to do them on), but this gratification was derived chiefly from watching the men. The war was only twenty months old, but how much in the way of bigger muscles and broader chests it had put onto the frames of these soldiers, I do not know. I am certain, though. that the result of their training at home and in France, followed by six months of good food, fresh air and daily digging out here, was that a heftier, healthier set of men you could have found nowhere, and that the towns from which they came would not have recognised them from the slim-built clerks and the shop-assistants and the pale-faced artisans that they once were and would still have been, if the war had not called them. There were battalions like one of the Wiltshires, which would march a thousand strong all day and not a single man fall out.
It is a picturesque scene, too, as the brigade marches onto the ground where it is to bivouac for the night. In half-an-hour you will see an empty dell or a deserted hillside changed into a busy military town with its appointed districts each set out in regular streets of little shelter-tents, its fixed drinking and washing places, its cook-house fires burning, its own hospital established in a big marquee, its headquarters mess-table set up and laid and its own telephone and telegraph office sending and receiving messages incessantly. The staff-captain who rode ahead to choose its site works his miracle even quicker than the genie of the Arabian Nights, who needed from sunset to sunrise to raise his magic city in the desert.
And if you spend a night like this with a British brigade on the march you realise how it is that our Army keeps in war that look of freshness and smartness that characterises it in peace. The British soldier as regards his personal habits is probably the cleanest in the world. No matter how footsore the men may be, no matter how exhausted by their long, heavy-laden tramp in the sweltering heat, the first thing they do after getting their equipment off and their bivouac set up is to take their towel from their haversack and make for the nearest stream. The sentries posted to fix the limits of the washing-places have all they can do to regulate the rush. In a few minutes there are, first dozens, then hundreds of men, standing most of them stark naked by the waterside, washing themselves from head to foot. I have seen a good many civilians at home who ought to be taken to see British soldiers wash. It is a lesson in thoroughness. Face and neck and scalp disappear under a thick layer of lather and are scrubbed and rubbed and scoured with almost vindictive energy, as if they were so much harness being polished. Then, after a tremendous slooshing with water, the head vanishes again into the folds of a towel so rough that it might be made up into hair-shirts for anchorites, and finally, with much blowing and panting, the man emerges, clean, fresh, content, with a face as red as a poppy and as glistening as the morning.
THE STEEP TRACKS UP WHICH ALL AMMUNITION, SUPPLIES AND WATER HAVE TO BE CARRIED TO MUCH OF OUR FRONT LINE.
Uneasy at the preparations the Allies were making in the Balkans, though affecting to mock at. Salonica as his "biggest internment camp," the enemy tried to perturb us and perhaps raise trouble through arousing the fears of the civilian population by carrying out night air-raids on our base at Salonica. Aeroplanes came once at dawn in March and turned to and fro over the centre of the town dropping bombs. But they lost three, if not four, machines on their way back. A Zeppelin also made a successful raid on February 1st and set a warehouse belonging to the Bank of Salonica on fire, besides killing several civilians.
But the second visit of the same Zeppelin to Salonica, after several unsuccessful attempts to return there, led to its destruction. In the small hours of May 6th the town was awakened by the crash of antiaircraft guns from the hills behind and from the ships in the harbour, and there, floating yellow in the glare of the searchlights over the heart of Salonica, was a Zeppelin, the first the townspeople had set eyes upon. A characteristically silly panic started, the people rushing out of their houses, and scurrying in contrary directions along the streets. The Zeppelin made for the harbour as if to bomb the warships there. At first it was too vertically above them for the naval gunners to fire, but a moment later the airship altered course, and a 12-pounder mounted on a high carriage on the forward bridge of H.M. S. "Agamemnon" brought it down in a long slant onto the marshes at the mouth of the Vardar, where, a moment after it had touched, the Zeppelin burst into flames. A startling, long-drawn-out cheer rang from the silent English and French warships at the sight and echoed through the darkness across the frightened town.
It was the Zeppelin's crew who had set fire to it when it stranded, and they tried afterwards to escape through the swamps around; they were rounded up though next morning by French cavalry as they were drying their drenched clothes in the sun. The prisoners' account of themselves was that the Zeppelin had come from Temesvar in Hungary; it had previously carried out raids on Riga, Dvinsk and Minsk in Russia. It was 200 yards long and had four 6-cylinder engines. It had been launched in the second half of 1915. I myself found a pencilled inscription on the aluminum framework of the nose, reading, "Potsdam, August 11th, 1915," which must have been a date when it was under construction. The crew said that they were astonished at the way they had been picked up by our anti-aircraft batteries and followed all down the line to Salonica. By the time they got there they were so blinded by the glare of the searchlights converging on them that they could not see to drop their bombs.
Directly the Zeppelin came down a British torpedo boat patrolling on the boom landed a party to arrest the crew, if they could be found, and bring away anything of importance from the wreck. After an accidental encounter among the dense reeds between one detachment and another, in which each thought it had found the enemy and the first imperiously called "Hands up!" to which the second immediately rejoined, "Hands up yourselves, you blighters; we've been looking for you all morning," they reached the wreck and there found a German naval war-flag hanging from the stern, undamaged by the fire. This ensign of the Zeppelin which H.M.S. "Agamemnon" finally brought down,---whether it had been previously hit or not,---now finds a place in the War-Museum at the Invalides in Paris. But the "Agamemnon's" have, as a consolation, one of the propellers of the Zeppelin hanging on the wall of the Captain's quarters in memory of their exploit.
I went out to the wreck early next day. It was a strenuous journey. The shoalwater of the Vardar mouth is too shallow for even a rowing-boat to approach the shore, and when you have waded to the bank, you find that you must still go knee-deep in water for a mile or so with the reeds meeting above your head. A Canadian medical officer was even drowned trying to reach the wreck on horseback.
One would never have believed it possible that a single Zeppelin would carve up into so many souvenirs as that one did. Amid the harassed protests of its French guard, English officers, sailors, even nurses who had made the muddy and exhausting journey, would hack and twist at the broken framework for days afterwards, yet when later on it was officially cut up and removed, several barge-loads of fragments still remained.
Rumours, that are always more popular when they are grisly, alleged that two men of the crew had been pinned underneath the wreck and burned alive.
A midshipman, in fact, burrowing in the mud, even found what he proclaimed in triumph to be a "charred human hand." It certainly had that shape. Though blackened by fire and covered with ooze, the form of the clutching fingers could be clearly seen. Their crooked grasp seemed to have been straining in a last agony for something solid to seize upon amid the spongy slime. The grim trophy was bottled in spirits of wine and much admired, until one day its owner consented, at the entreaty of a friend, to cede him one finger of the blackened relic. The ship's surgeon was asked to perform the operation of severing the finger, but, to the surprise of every one, his knife sliced through it at one cut. It then transpired that the clutching hand of the burnt Boche was nothing more gruesome than an empty glove singed by the flames and tight-filled with caked mud.
THE story of our relations with the Greeks is a great part of the whole history of the Balkan campaign. Our extraordinary situation made that inevitable. There we were, fighting on neutral territory to which we had come by invitation from the national Government,---that must never be forgotten,---but where, owing to a subsequent unconstitutional change of that Government, we found ourselves thoroughly unwelcome guests, and had to consider our hosts as also our secret enemies.
It was never fully realised at home how much the Greeks did hamper us during the first part of the Balkan campaign, not so much by what they did as by what they might do. They interfered with us actively in petty details,---until General Sarrail proclaimed martial law and took over the administration of the Army area,---and they were always a threat and an obsession in the larger matters of politics and strategy. The criticism at home was: "Why don't you get on with your war against the Bulgars and stop bothering about these insignificant Greeks?" The answer to that is that when you have got any job of work to do and all the time have behind you a man who is, or whom you believe to be, about to stab you in the back as soon as you get well into it, you cannot help your attention being distracted from your principal occupation.
The trouble was that the Allied Army in the Orient could do nothing to clear up the situation and get a firm, sure base to work on until their Governments at home gave their consent. And the Allied Governments, being made up of men who have never been to the Balkans and are consequently quite unacquainted with the special mentality of the Balkan peoples, have always fallen into the natural mistake of considering Greece and other Balkan states as being replicas on a smaller scale of the big Western European nations, swayed by the same considerations, governed by the same motives, looking at things from the same angle. Of course, that is not so, but hence very many of our mistakes in that part of the world.
You really need to have been to Salonica to realise what a nuisance and a danger the Greeks were to us until M. Venizelos improved things by his revolution. I could give a long list of instances, but that would not convey a full impression. It was a sneaking, underhand hostility that King Constantine's officers and officials practised. Outwardly they were correct and coldly courteous, but many of the chief of them were working deliberately for the Germans against us all the time, and you felt the atmosphere of enmity in your bones.
A simple parable will perhaps convey, as well as anything, an idea of the situation we found on arriving at Salonica. Imagine that you were a Parliamentary candidate going down to fight an election in a town where there is only one possible hotel. The manager of this hotel, who is a friend of yours, and a thorough adherent of your party, offers you a set of rooms at the hotel and you take the offer. The manager promises, too, to help in every way he can with your campaign. Just as you are arriving, and when all your arrangements have been made, you learn that the managing director of the hotel, who is a bitter opponent of your political party and devoted to the other side, is furious that his manager has let you the rooms and has dismissed him in consequence. It is too late for him to prevent you taking the accommodation that you were offered, but the managing director gives strict orders to his staff to make you just as uncomfortable as they can. They will not answer the bell; they cut off the light and water; they will not serve you with food in the hotel, on the plea that there would otherwise not be enough for the other guests; they open and read your letters; they spy upon you in every way; they communicate your plans to your political opponent so that he can anticipate them; and, the election becoming a rowdy one, you receive information that the managing director has the intention on the first occasion that you try to address the crowd from the balcony to have you sandbagged from behind. Now, under those circumstances, who could give full and undivided attention to fighting the election and refuting the political arguments of his opponent ; who would not be at the same time very much preoccupied in taking precautions against the troublesome managing director of the hotel?
We have had two kinds of relations with the Greeks,---local commercial relations, which have been, needless to say, exceedingly profitable to them (and in the term Greeks, I include the large Hebrew population of Salonica, which is of Greek nationality), and the larger political relations of which the chief landmarks have been the proclamation of martial law at Salonica in June, 1916, the "Salonica Revolution" of August, the coming of M. Venizelos to Salonica in October, and finally the occupation of Thessaly and the expulsion of King Constantine in June, 1917.
The arrival of the Allies and especially of the English at Salonica was the sort of opportunity for moneymaking that the local Greek and Israelite population could not have surpassed in their wildest dreams, We came. bringing practically unlimited money, and needing whatever could be bought locally, so as to save the delays and risks of sea-transport. The trade of Salonica, which had gone steadily down since the day when it passed from the Turks to the Greeks, and the town at the same time lost its ancient and natural hinterland of the whole of Macedonia, free of customs-barriers, has revived and increased, since our coming, to proportions of artificial magnitude. Men who were on the verge of bankruptcy are now rich. The Greek or the Jew trader who counted himself lucky to make, say, £800 or £1,000 in the twelve months, at present makes £10,000 and will doubtless continue to make it as long as the Allies are there. Prices are very high; profits are very large. Rubbish has sold at the price of first-class European goods because the difficulties of transport have prevented English firms from getting consignments out to Salonica. The attitude of the local trader towards the Allied troops in their private purchases has been "take it at the price or leave it."
As for house-rents, they rose in one bound on our arrival to the same scale as the best parts of the Westend of London. This is due partly to the limited number of even approximately modern hotels and houses, and the consequent competition of the Staffs of the various contingents of the Allied Armies to secure them, and also to the fact that when we arrived in Salonica no one expected that we should still be there two years later. I think the general belief at that time was that we should either have got on or got out before the autumn of 1917. Accordingly there seemed small reason for any effort to alter the tradition of open-handedness which has always distinguished the British Government in its dealings with foreigners and neutrals. Moreover, the officers who had, at very short notice, to secure accommodation for Army Headquarters, were perhaps not all of them experienced in the Oriental method of bargaining, the recognised principle of which is that the seller begins by demanding twice as much as he is willing to take, while the buyer responds by offering half as much as he is prepared to give. When the Greek or Hebrew proprietor of a jerry-built villa, of most inadequate sanitation, explained with an abundance of reasons, and an air of great finality that he could not let it furnished (it is a definite case that I am referring to) for six months for less than £800, a straightforward English officer, unaccustomed to guile, and hating a haggle, would incline to take him at his word, and cursing him in his heart, or even openly, for a thief, would sign the contract, to the astonishment and satisfaction of the Levantine proprietor.
To give one concrete instance of the way in which the inhabitants of Salonica deliberately blackmailedour Army by refusing to let buildings except at an iniquitous rental,---there is a two-storied villa standing in the main residential street of Salonica; it is certainly passably furnished, and has a shady garden round it. It affords accommodation, I believe, on its two floors, for fourteen officers and their batmen, and the price the army has had to pay for it, furnished, is £200 a month, or just about twelve times its rent under normal conditions. For a hotel of thirty-two rooms needed for the sleeping-accommodation of certain officers at the base, 12,000 drachmas, or about £490 a month, was exacted. Nor was this profiteering confined to individuals. Public bodies took advantage of the boom. For a Greek orphanage, needed as the nucleus of a General Hospital (it would only hold 500 beds), we had to pay rent at the rate of £9,000 a year, and then spend between £5,000 and £10,000 on filling up the existing cesspools and draining it to the sea.
Such establishments as Floca's Café and the White Tower restaurant and cabaret have, of course, made fortunes for their very wide-awake proprietors. My memory of Floca's from visits to Salonica before the war is of a large plateglass-sided room, furnished with many chairs and tables, but normally containing not more than a score of Greeks or Jews, who had met there to discuss business deals while twiddling their inevitable strings of beads. None of them, though they might remain two hours, would buy more than a cup of Turkish coffee (prewar price 1d.), or a "mastic" (1/2d. more), and even with that they would demand a series of plates of mézé,---a sort of hors-d'uvre, consisting of scraps of salt fish, olives and slices of sausage (thrown in free before the war). The more frugal-minded would content themselves with a glass of water (served free). Tips were unknown to the humble waiters of Floca's in those far-off days. Only on Saturday and Sunday,---the Jew and Christian Sabbaths,---would there be an affluence of expensively dressed Levantine ladies from the Quartier des Campagnes, which is the residential suburb of Salonica, and they would bring custom amounting perhaps to a four-penny lemonade or a five-penny ice, but as they would sit over it from teatime till dinner, and a party of five secure its right to a table on the terrace by giving only two orders, it is clear that the amount of the receipts necessary to make Floca's a paying concern under normal conditions was small.
But since the Allies came. Floca's is full from early morning, when officers arriving from the front by overnight trains breakfast there (two boiled eggs, is. 2d.; coffee, 8d.; bread, 4d.), to late at night when the last liqueur-glass with a generous margin of air at the top is emptied and paid for at 80 centimes. Several times the French military authorities have fallen upon Floca's and it has been consigné (or as we say, put out of bounds) for charging too much or reducing too considerably the size of the portions it serves. Then for the duration of the order the Café that is normally thronged with officers of six nationalities on town leave, for breakfast, the morning refresher, the glass of vermouth before luncheon, the liqueur after luncheon, tea (sometimes with the company of nurses to swell Floca frères' receipts), the apéritif before dinner, the liqueur after dinner, and the final beer or whiskey-and-soda before turning in, is reduced to a meagre clientele of civilians. But as soon as the prohibition is lifted the place immediately swarms once more with customers impatient at the indifferent service and indignant at the exaggerated bill, but obliged to go there because it is the only rendezvous. In passing, one may say that the fact that Floca's is always full by no means indicates that the army at Salonica is slack. Floca's has a constantly changing set of patrons, made up of officers down from the front on three days' leave (remember that there is far less leave home from Salonica than from France), and of officers arriving with drafts and quartered for a few days in rest-camps round the town.
How much better it would have been if we had taken over Salonica on a business-like basis at the beginning of the Balkan campaign, and regulated prices on a just scale which would have prevented this flow of money from British into alien pockets. The Greeks are a commercial people. It would have appealed very strongly to their instincts as moneymakers if we had said to the Greek Government as soon as the expedition was decided upon, "We need Salonica as a base; we must have full control of its administration while the sovereignty remains yours, the revenues are collected by you and the Greek flag continues to fly. For this undisturbed control we will pay you a rent of so many millions a year." We could then have gone to Salonica as to an Allied town. Instead of having to pay iniquitous sums without protest for fear of offending neutral feeling, we could have requisitioned whatever we needed at equitable rates, and we could have fixed prices on a prewar basis with due allowance for increase in cost of raw materials. This, in view of the vast augmentation of business that we brought, would still have left a large profit to the traders, while we should have been protected against the corner-maker, and the profiteer who have both done so well out of all the Allies.
And just as the foregoing was being written, there comes news of what really sounds like a judgment upon the greed of Salonica. Two-thirds of the town within the walls has been wiped out in two days by an extraordinary conflagration. The business section and what one may well call the native quarter have entirely disappeared. Floca's, the Odeon, the Splendid Palace, the Rue Venizelos,---all of them names that had gradually become as familiar to scores of Englishmen in the Balkans as Ciro's, the Empire, the Savoy and the Strand are, on a far different plane, to Londoners,---exist to-day as nothing but charred and smoking ruins. The Salonica Club, which was only saved for a time by being kept practically under water by the converging hydrants of the Fleet from the opposite side of the Quay, was the last building to succumb. It will be missed more than any, for it has the only comfortable chairs in Salonica, and the readiness with which it opened its doors to Allied visitors was very welcome. The loss of the whole of the shopping area will be keenly felt by officers up-country, for whom the town was, however inadequately, the sole source of the conveniences of life. Salonica, formerly the solitary outpost of civilisation in Macedonia, now stands as desolate as any muddy village of the Balkans.
Though practically all our military establishments, being outside the area of the old town, were unharmed by the fire, this disaster must nevertheless hamper us as an army for some time to come. To begin with, we have, at the time of writing, some 60,000 of the burnt-out inhabitants on our hands. We are feeding them; we are lodging them, and the energies of the Greek Government which would otherwise have been engaged in preparing their country to take its share in our Balkan campaign, will now be occupied for some time in housing and equipping these destitute refugees. The town can only be said to have brought the disaster on itself. Though chiefly built of wooden houses its fire brigade was simply Gilbertian,---a wag once suggested in the Balkan "News" that as more water escaped out of the leaks in the hose than through the nozzle it would be more advantageous to lay the pipe sideways on to the fire. And, in fact, the Salonica firemen always proved themselves incapable of coping with the most trivial house-burnings unless reinforced by fire-parties from our Fleet. So that Salonica, with the huge fortune it has made out of us as a town, seems only rightly punished for the fickleness of its civic organisation.
As a spectacle, the conflagration must have equalled Rome burning. The part of the town destroyed rises as an amphitheatre within the still complete girdle of its mediæval walls. Most of it is a maze of rambling, crooked little alleys, mysterious and picturesque. The church of St. Demetrius, forcibly converted for four and a half centuries of Turkish occupation into a mosque, but still showing faintly on its walls the stiff-figured frescoes that artists of the Eastern Roman Empire drew, has met this lurid fate at the end of its eventful history. Few towns, indeed, have had so tumultuous a past as Salonica. Sack and massacre, siege and revolution, war and civil strife, have all convulsed it again and again. It has been left until the time when the greatest war of all had brought to Salonica Allied troops from every corner of the earth for the most historical part of the town to find destruction in the flames.
The official relations of the Allies with the Greeks, as distinct from those of commercial intercourse, were characterised from our first landing by covert obstruction on the part of the royalist authorities, officials and administration of the town. Their first action was to interfere with the free choice by the Allies of encamping-sites on the vast area of waste land which surrounds Salonica. Thus they insisted on apportioning to the French the Zeitenlick camp, which was notoriously unhealthy ground.
Furthermore, within the town, when we began to negotiate for houses to lodge the various offices of Army Headquarters, the Greek military authorities would requisition them to prevent our getting the accommodation, and when they heard of the negotiations too late they even prosecuted proprietors for letting their property without official sanction. Part of our headquarters was consequently lodged in most inconvenient buildings, which had to be changed later on when circumstances at last forced General Sarrail to take matters more into his own hands. When the Allies bought foodstuffs locally, the Greeks would often requisition these before delivery, and once they went so far as to place a sentry on some stores that were being transferred by process of sale from the English to the French Army, basing their action upon some technical point. Finally the Greek Government issued an order that no foodstuffs were to be sold to the Allied Armies at all, an order which the latter made no attempt to go behind. The object of it was evident. King Constantine's Government wished to deprive us of the advantage of finding ready-to-hand in Greece any of the stores necessary for our campaign.
But the scope of Greek obstruction extended much beyond the limits of the town. The Greek Army, mobilised on a war footing, lay between us and our enemy, and formed a tight cordon round the Allies at Salonica. Strong posts held every road, at a distance from the town that was in some places of only five or six miles. On the Seres road, until at least the end of the year, the Greek Army refused to allow our yeomanry and cyclist patrols to go beyond the Kar. Into the zone beyond their rearward outpost line the Greeks forbade even a mounted reconnaissance to enter. This obstruction on the part of the Greeks even prevented our Staff officers for some time from studying the ground on which the fortifications of Salonica would have later to be constructed.
The railways, of course, afforded a most convenient opening for covert interference. When the French General Staff asked the Greek authorities for railway-waggons (on hire, be it always understood), they could never get them in anything like the quantity that the available rolling-stock could have provided, as was shown by the fact that meanwhile empty waggons would be left standing in stations up the line. When the French asked for three hundred they would be offered forty-five, and if flat trucks were needed it was almost certainly covered ones that would be sent. The object of this system was to delay the landing and transport of our stores.
Furthermore, in the working of the two lines we used there were endless delays. It must be remembered that the fact that we were in a neutral country prevented our putting them under military management. The Greek personnel, much of it of more than doubtful disposition towards the Entente, remained at its posts to assist (or hinder) our traffic movement. Consequently, the line during the operations in Serbia in November and December, 1915, never carried more than six to eight trains a day, a figure which would have been absurd with efficient management. And as for speed,---to come from Guevgheli to Salonica (under sixty miles) took from ten to twelve hours. Two derailments occurred under this Greek control of the line, both rather unaccountable, both capable of gravely hindering our retreat from Serbia. Later on, when we were organising our base at Salonica, trucks would be sent as if by chance to the far ends of the line,---Florina or Xanthe,---so that we could not get hold of them and use them, while they would be there for the Bulgars to seize immediately they crossed the frontier, should they advance. In the same way coal would be transferred from the depot at Salonica on various pretexts to points up the line, such as Florina, where the Greek prefect of the town was later arrested by the French in red-handed conspiracy with the Germans and Bulgars for smuggling supplies across the frontier to them.
Whenever we wanted to make use of Greek telegraph lines, the habitual reply was that they were needed for Greek Government purposes. When circumstances admitted of our establishing a parallel line of our own we had first to get the permission of the Greeks to do so, and beyond all question telegraph wires of the French General Staff were tapped by Greek officers. Allied wireless was often jammed so that the warships in the harbour could not get messages reporting enemy submarines.
There existed, moreover, in the early days at Salonica, a well-organised system of official espionage which had every means of ascertaining our strength and movement and communicating the information it collected to quarters that beyond doubt passed it on to the enemy. This organisation was under the control of Colonel Messalas, the Greek Base Commandant at Salonica. He used to send in his reports in triplicate every week, one to the Minister of War at Athens, one to the King and the other direct to Queen Sophie. No one can doubt that these reports were coded and transmitted by wireless to the German General Staff. One of the first acts of this official anti-Ally organisation was to remove from their posts all the French, Italian and other pro-Ally officials employed on the railways and replace them by Greeks who could be trusted to obey orders. The guards on goods-trains on the Macedonian railways, who travel in a sort of little sentry-box fixed onto the end of a truck, and rising above its roof, had to give a written report after every journey of any movement of troops they had seen, or any military works they had noticed in the course of construction.
Meanwhile, with our characteristic punctiliousness of respect for the right of neutrals, we agreed to furnish the Greek port authorities with a return of all the material we landed at Salonica. This was for purposes of estimation of the dues to be paid on it. Of course, our Staff protected itself as far as possible by using vague terms,---"so many, tons of artillery material," "so many tons of forage," and so on, but the Greeks even had the boldness to ask for details, which, needless to say, they did not get, and after some time the system was abolished, being replaced, I believe, by one based on averages.
For the spy, Salonica is Paradise. He thrives and multiplies there like a microbe in jelly. If a spy had the chance of creating an ideal environment to work in he could not improve upon Salonica. Imagine a town where the languages commonly and regularly spoken are old Spanish, much adulterated, Greek, Turkish, Italian, Bulgarian. Serb, Roumanian, and French; where every one has changed his subjection at least once during the last five years,---from Turkish to Greek,---and where before that several thousands of people had all sorts of claims to European nationalities, based on the complicated Turkish system of the Capitulations (under which one brother in the same family would be "French," another "English," another "Italian," perhaps without one of them being able to speak a single sentence in the tongue of the nationality he claimed; where the old part of the town is a maze of densely inhabited alleys, most of them without names, where the houses, Turkish fashion, present usually nothing but a blind wall to the street, and have a high-walled, stout-doored courtyard in front of them; where there is no directory, and where the people living in a street have no dealings with or knowledge of other people living in the same street who are not of their race, language and religion; where you are up against the traditional Eastern idea of the seclusion of women, and where many women,---Turks and Dounmehs (Mohammedans of Jewish race), always go veiled; where there is an unknown number of secret underground rooms and passages, as you might expect in a modern town built on the ruins of an ancient and prosperous city; and where at first the local authorities of the place were not at all ill-disposed towards the spy, but inclined to protect him if possible against our military police; where many of the town's richest and most influential inhabitants had strong, personal reasons for sympathising with the enemy,---Jewish money-lenders of Salonica held mortgages on estates in Hungary and Austria, and the town had always swarmed with Austrian agents spreading the idea that its future prosperity depended on its becoming linked with Austria-Hungary as the outlet of the Central Empires to the Mediterranean. Imagine but a fraction of these conditions, and you will realise something of how easy it was for enemy agents to work against us and how hard it was for our counter-spy service to hunt them down.
The spies of Salonica were run by committees. Each of the enemy nationalities had its committee, has still, very likely,---and these employ agents on the ingenious secret-society principle by which each man knows only two others. They found their tools chiefly among the civil labourers the army employed.
I went out several times with the military police on their almost nightly work of arresting spies. The rendezvous would be in the small hours. As you reached it something familiar would strike you in the mere attitudes of the little squad of khaki-clad army policemen waiting in the shadow at the street corner, something more familiar still about their walk. It was the deliberate manner of the London constable, unmistakable even without the dignity of helmet and blue, for many of the P.M.'s men at Salonica have had a beat in the Metropolitan area.
Strung out to make the tramp of feet less noticeable in the silence, the party would make its way up the hill into the old town,---an informer as guide, followed by the P.M. and the police. The dark streets, twisting about on the hill within the city walls are just what the lanes of Tudor London must have been. Crooked gables lean out across the narrow way, and the space between the houses on either side widens and narrows after the haphazard of their building. Rough, slippery cobbles are underfoot; an open drain trickles along the edge of the street. Never can you see for more than twenty yards ahead, and the shadows among the crazy old wooden house-fronts, with their heavy doors and iron-barred windows, are picked out only by a feebly flickering little oil-lamp here and there along the walls.
"This is the place," whispers the native agent who guides the party. A low doorway of grey wood, which leads evidently into the small courtyard that separates each of these houses from the street. The heavy hand of a policeman beats a tattoo upon it, that soon brings a gabble of frightened Greek or Turkish from within. "Open quick," calls an officer in reply to a torrent of enquiries, and then, "Well,we can't give him time to get away. Just push the door in, one of you." A heave from the shoulder of a fourteen-stone policeman sends it flying with a crash, and a neat little stone-flagged courtyard with a sycamore tree rustling in the corner and the blue-washed wall of a house on the other side lies open before us. Figures with candles in their hands are peering anxiously out of the doorway, and when it is a British uniform that steps into the courtyard a wail goes up that testifies to uneasy consciences. The business of making the arrest is soon over. No resistance is offered. It would so clearly be futile.
"Is Hakki Mehmed here?" Hakki Mehmed admits his identity quite unconcernedly. The Turks certainly show character and self-possession under these trying circumstances. They never raise their voices or get excited. They suggest, as one gentleman to another, that the privacy of their harem shall be respected, and they reassure the weeping black-veiled figures who crane from its doorway with the confident statement that they will certainly be back again to-morrow. Then a military policeman closes in on each side of them and off they go. Perhaps they will come back, as they say; perhaps penal servitude in Cairo will be their lot before they see the little blue-walled courtyard again.
Eerie scenes, some of those that. are lit up by the native oil-lamps and the electric torches of the soldiers in these high-walled courtyards in the heart of old Salonica. Odd galleries and gables jut out above; there is a quaint old wellhead in the middle, and though the women are shrouded in their regulation black, the men wear padded garments of brightlycoloured print, half-way between a frock-coat and a dressing-gown. The whole household sleeps almost fully dressed on the low cushion divans that are the only furniture in the whitewashed carpetless rooms. The place looks clean enough at the first glance, but you do well not to cross its threshold, for the walls are swarming with the vermin that live in the crannies of the century-old woodwork. And some strange old figures totter out to blink at the flashing lights, ---Turkish great-grandfathers of uncertain age and many deformities, who never venture into the streets, but spend their days crouched in a corner of the closed-in dwelling, waiting for death to take them.
Sometimes arrests have to be made in Turkish houses of a better class, and there the additional complication of a part of the house being supposed to be strictly barred off as the harem makes the search more difficult. The servants, with the ingenuity of the Levantine mind, are expert in lying to conceal their master's whereabouts. "Since you must know," said the butler of one suspect, "my master is unfortunately addicted to excessive drinking, and often stays downtown all night getting drunk with friends. He has not come home to-night, and I expect that that is where he is." And this plausible story, told with the shamefaced air of a faithful servant letting a stranger into the family secrets, might have been believed if one of the search-party had not happened just then to notice a small door that had not been opened. It led into a little private garden belonging to the harem, and there, standing in his nightshirt among the bushes in the middle of a flower-bed, was the supposed secret drinker and master of the house, who was so badly wanted by our police.
Although the privacy with which Turks surround their households makes arrests there rather more exciting, there are plenty of suspects of other races to be dealt with. They are discovered in all sorts of places,---presenting forged passes to pickets on the roads; at the railway station; on the quay when steamers come in; or even in the midst of their astonished friends in the café. And if there is one thing that adds to the impression that these arrests make on the local population, it is the quiet and unperturbed way in which they are carried out by our people. No fuss, no threatenings, no drawn revolvers,---just an almost casual "Is that the man? Bring him along," the sharp click of a handcuff locking, and another enemy agent is led mildly away to a fate which his conscience tells him is full of unpleasant possibilities.
There are plenty of misdemeanours less grave than spying, however, that bring the local population of Salonica into contact with our military police. Stealing or receiving goods stolen from our supply dumps and stores is the commonest of them. A regular business sprang up in stealing and secretly disposing of portable property of the British Army directly we landed in Salonica. Blankets, breeches, condensed milk, biscuits,---hidden stores of them were accumulated all over the town and traded off at very remunerative prices. Our agents usually got onto their track by employing a Greek to pose as a purchaser and would seize both the goods and the money provided to induce a sale just as they were being exchanged in great privacy between the guilty receiver and the paid informer.
There are thousands of Greeks employed about the quays discharging ships, and in the early days they had all sorts of tricks for pilfering. They would knock a case off a lighter in a pre-arranged spot so that they could come back at night and fish it up again. At one dump, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence, they even tunnelled down to beneath the pile of packing-cases and then opened them from below and extracted their contents, leaving the emptied boxes in place so that they looked as if they had never been touched. The Greek soldiers were even bold enough to form bands and hold up isolated motor-lorries laden with stores, so that an order had to be issued that each lorry should carry a guard of two armed men, and A.S.C. drivers always had their rifles by their sides. Gradually, however, the activities of our organisation, and the robust handling which a Greek thief caught red-handed might expect from the military police, made the game too risky to be worth playing, and thieving from the army has now decreased to insignificance.
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