The much derided and often forgotten Balkan sideshow would begin as yet another dreary trench stalemate–and end as one of the few brilliant campaigns of World War I
“The world’s biggest internment camp” was what German propagandists called the Allied positions around the Greek city of Salonika. A quarter-million British, French, African, Serb, and Greek troops spent so much time entrenching themselves there that Georges Clemenceau dubbed them “the Salonika gardeners.” But Salonika was more than another of the Great War’s sideshows, more than another dumping ground for generals who failed on the Western Front. Salonika witnessed the rebirth of the Serbian army and the making of the Yugoslav state. It saw some of the war’s fiercest mountain fighting and one of history’s last decisive cavalry operations. And it was from Salonika that the new Balkan order emerged–an order to this day being determined by blood as well as words.
The Salonika campaign grew out of Germany’s decision in the summer of 1915 to remove the Serbian thorn from its southern flank and consolidate a Balkan position threatened by the Allies’ attack on the Dardanelles in March and April. Neither Germany nor Austria-Hungary could spare resources for a major operation. They turned to Bulgaria, still smarting from defeat in the Second Balkan War of 1912 and increasingly concerned by a Serbia now directly allied with France and Britain as well as Russia. With the equivalent of 20 divisions, a thousand guns, and a well-trained officer corps at his disposal, Emperor Ferdinand of Bulgaria was able to strike a hard bargain. Bulgaria would receive all of Macedonia, parts of Serbia, and further territory from Greece and Romania should these states join the Allies. In addition to a generous loan, the Central Powers contributed a dozen divisions, a strong force of heavy artillery, and a proven command team. Field Marshal August von Mackensen and his chief of staff, Hans von Seeckt, specialized in set-piece offensives built around massive, systematic artillery preparation. They had crippled the Russians in Galicia, at Gorlice-Tarnow, in May. Seeckt was also a first-rate logistician, an important attribute for a commander in a region already devastated by war.
By the fall of 1915, a Serbian army eroded by disease and casualties, low on ammunition and medical supplies, faced attack from three sides by Bulgarians, Germans, and Austrians. Mackensen’s offensive began on October 7. Veteran German commanders praised Serbian ferocity and resolution. But courage was no substitute for steel. As its troops were driven back on all fronts, Serbia called on its allies. As early as December 1914, the French general Louis Franchet d’Esperey, who would later lead the Allies in the theater, had urged opening a “second front” in the Balkans. David Lloyd George, then Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, had visions of a combined Greek, Serb, and Romanian offensive against Austria and Turkey. Their respective general staffs observed that such an operation could only be supported through the Greek port of Salonika, acquired from the Ottoman empire only in 1912. However, the city’s harbor facilities fell far short of those required by a modern expeditionary force. The only railway line from Salonika into Serbia was single-tracked and ran through some of the roughest country in southeastern Europe. Diplomats added that the Greek government was aggressively neutral, and correspondingly unlikely to allow even a landing at Salonika, much less turn over its northern provinces to foreign troops.
Serbia’s crisis changed minds, if only temporarily. On September 25, France and Britain had agreed to send a division each from the Dardanelles to Salonika–if they could get ashore. Greek premier Eleutherios Venizelos believed Greece could replace Serbia as the Allies’ principal Balkan ally if it acted quickly. King Constantine, of German descent, distrusted Venizelos as a rival for power. The resulting fencing match saw Venizelos simultaneously welcoming the landing, protesting the violation of Greek neutrality, and resigning as the first Allied troops disembarked on October 5.
Britain was an unwilling participant. Greek politics baffled soldiers convinced that only the Western Front mattered and that “wogs begin at Calais.” The French were more sanguine. The tension between Venizelos and Constantine offered opportunities to enhance French influence in Greece. France had an other reason to encourage the operation. Before 1914 the French army had been riven by internal conflicts. Gen. Maurice Sarrail was one of the chief firebrands, an outspoken republican and a free-thinking Freemason whose contacts with left-wing politicians facilitated his rise through the senior ranks while alienating him from his colleagues. In July 1915, Marshal Joseph Joffre dismissed Sarrail from command of the 3rd Army, where his record had been solid until a surprise local German offensive captured enough ground and inflicted enough casualties to legitimate his relief.
Sarrail’s political patrons were unwilling to see him relegated to obscurity. Neither Joffre nor Prime Minister Rene Viviani were comfortable with having a loose cannon of Sarrail’s caliber at loose ends in Paris. Sending him to Salonika appeared a no lose situation. If Sarrail failed, he would be finished. And he just might help win the war. Sarrail might be a political general; he was not an obvious incompetent. The new generalissimo arrived in Salonika on October 12, eager for action but limited in fighting power. Fewer than 50,000 men were involved in the initial deployment. Sarrail’s sole French division, a composite force of metropolitan and African troops, had suffered heavily at the nearby Dardanelles. The British 10th Division, raised in Ireland as part of Kitchener’s New Army, had also suffered heavy losses at Gallipoli and was neither trained nor equipped for mountain warfare. Its commander, Sir Bryan Mahon, was under orders from London to remain near Salonika until the Greek political situation was clarified.
Sarrail nevertheless pushed his French elements forward up the Vardar valley in support of a Serbian army whose situation was changing from exposed to desperate. Not until the end of October was Mahon authorized to cross the Serbo-Greek frontier. The Allies, engaging by battalions and batteries, got less than 100 miles from Salonika before Serbia was overrun. What remained of its army made a fighting retreat to Kosovo, the Field of Blackbirds, site of the 14th-century defeat by the Ottoman empire that symbolized Serb identity. With lines of retreat to the south blocked by Bulgarian troops, Serbia’s high command turned west, toward the Adriatic coast.
Serbian prime minister Nikola Pasic denounced “the indecision and inactivity of our allies…the determining factor in our decision….” The Serbian evacuation involved as many as 300,000 soldiers and civilians. It included 20,000 prisoners of war, mostly Austrians captured in the fall of 1914 and brought along as a gesture of defiance. Some of the men in Serbian uniforms were in their 70s. Others had scarcely reached their teens. King Peter himself, at 71, rode in a specially constructed cart, a concession to his age and frailty. Meat came from slaughtered artillery horses. Bread was made from cornflower seed, when there was any bread at all. A Scottish volunteer nurse who accompanied the retreat recalled dead unburied and wounded abandoned, surgery without anesthesia, men and women moving in silence through rain and mist, sleet and snow, and always the cold, more bitter as the altitude increased. The landscape was oddly bright, she said, with the colors of defeat: blood on a bandage, the brown of exposed flesh, a yellow cap on the head of a dead child.
If the Central Powers were unwilling to waste resources pursuing an enemy apparently doomed, Albanian guerrillas took a heavy toll of their ancestral enemies. Typhus, dysentery, and frostbite ravaged the survivors. After three weeks of nightmare in a Balkan December, those who reached the Adriatic found. . .nothing. Italy, which had joined the Entente in May, initially accepted responsibility for protecting the delivery of food and medical supplies to the small Albanian ports where the refugees had congregated. But when it came to the crunch, Italy’s admirals were unwilling to risk their ships. Instead the Allies decided on evacuation. By April 1916, more than 250,000 refugees had been removed, most of them to the Greek island of Corfu. They were so emaciated that nurses could lift and carry grown men. But 150,000 of them would fight again.
Meanwhile the overextended French and British fell back in the face of brutal weather and Bulgarian pressure. The 10th Division alone lost 1,700 men to frostbite and “general debility.” Four British and three French divisions arrived in Salonika from Europe as reinforcements by the end of December. They were enough to hold the Greek frontier against a Bulgaria forbidden by its German ally and paymaster to take the military and political risks of driving immediately for Salonika. But what were they to do next? On December 4, British prime minister Herbert Asquith described Salonika in these terms: “From a military point of view [it is] dangerous and likely to lead to a great disaster.” The French disagreed, more for diplomatic than military reasons. The Serbian government in exile saw Salonika as its best chance to return to the war and have a stake in the peace settlement. Russia was willing to send troops. So was Italy, suspicious of the French and nurturing its own aspirations for a Balkan sphere of influence. While the politicians debated, Sarrail created realities on the ground. Within four months he transformed Salonika into a formidable entrenched camp and a base able to support the offensive he planned for the spring of 1916. In the process the original small port town was all but submerged. The principal camp through which all reinforcements for the theater passed, was located just to the northeast. Its temporary buildings seemed afloat on a sea of mud, with not even trees to break the desolation. The merchants who set up shop outside the sentry lines charged such outrageous prices for such inferior wares that anyone with time and money spent both in a city whose entrepreneurs, whatever their nationality, quickly began catering to the wants of young men far from home. Restaurants, cinemas, theaters, brothels, and souvenir shops proliferated in a matrix of destitution. Salonika was already crowded with refugees from the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, living in churches and shantytowns. The inflation that accompanied the Allied occupation made their lot even worse.
Most of the troops who reached Salonika had little sympathy to spare for anyone but themselves. Instead of riding trains or trucks to the front they marched, with full packs, as far as 200 miles, along roads little better than tracks, through a wasteland of uncultivated fields and depopulated villages to reach a front line roughly paralleling the prewar Greek-Serbian border. Some of the forward positions were in sectors so barren that dynamite was needed to construct shelters. Others ran through low ground where mosquitoes spread a particularly virulent form of malaria. Its mortality rate was not high-one in over 200 for the British contingent. But it left its victims debilitated and vulnerable to further attacks. In October 1917, more than 20 percent of the British contingent was actually hospitalized, and this was after over a year’s experience in controlling the disease. Although their sectors were on higher ground, the French suffered as well.
Malaria’s impact was compounded by two major local products: high-proof liquor and high-risk sex. Soldiers in Macedonia had little to do with their off-duty time except absorb enough cheap wine or brandy to dull the misery of their surroundings. A common next step involved a transaction with a lady of professional love and doubtful hygiene. Venereal disease rates soared, including some varieties that defied treatment. As alternatives the British, true to a tradition of sublimation by exhaustion, organized fox-hunting meets for the officers, boxing matches and football games for the men. Some of the latter were played within range of Bulgarian artillery, which out of chivalry or bewilderment usually held its fire. Occasionally as well the hounds ran through the barbed wire separating the combatants, but each time they returned or were sent back. For those more culturally inclined there were theater groups and concert parties. The Balkan News appeared daily. The French were less readily placated. Not a few regarded even the Western Front as preferable. There they knew why they were fighting and had some contact with home. No one cared about the Bulgarians. “What in the devil have we come here to do?” asked one cafard-stricken poilu.
That question was answered by Aristide Briand. He had succeeded Viviani as premier and foreign minister in October 1915, and believed that with 20 divisions Sarrail could achieve the kind of success that would convince both Greece and Romania to join the Allies. The Serbian government was willing to provide six of those divisions, reorganized from survivors of the great retreat. The rest would have to come from outside the theater.
The British responded by arguing for the withdrawal of the forces already in place. The nine divisions currently in Salonika, their general staff pointed out, were more than needed to defend the port but too few for an offensive of any consequence. The French insisted on remaining, both to maintain what they regarded as their primacy in the Entente and to relieve the pressure of the German onslaught at Verdun. On April 30, 1916, Sarrail received orders to attack with the forces in hand: five British divisions, four French, and six of Serbs. The offensive was intended first to prevent the transfer of troops of the Central Powers from the Balkans to the West, then to bring Greece and Romania into the war, and finally perhaps to compel Bulgaria to sue for peace.
It was an ambitious program, and Britain remained skeptical. When, however, on July 4, 1916, Romanian premier Ion Bratianu declared his country willing to join the Allies–if they would mount a major offensive from Salonika–London’s grumbling subsided. By this time the Allied order of battle was bewilderingly multicultural. The Serbs, reequipped by a France that was the Great War’s arsenal of democracy, began landing from Corfu in April. Many were in their 30s or older. Most bore the marks of hunger. But they were survivors, inured to privation and virtually immune to disease. A brigade of Russians arrived in July, with another to follow. Italy sent in August an oversized division of 18 battalions, good troops experienced in mountain operations.
The army’s core remained its French and British contingents. The French eventually reached a strength of nine divisions. One, the 30th, was an active army formation recruited from around Marseilles. The rest were wartime creations, combining active regiments and battalions with units raised from prewar reservists and wartime conscripts. Three of these divisions were “colonial,” with cadres and depots provided by regiments raised in France for service outside the country. Otherwise they differed from the rest of the army primarily in their uniforms: khaki as opposed to horizon blue. There were a few Zouave battalions, European residents of Tunisia and Algeria with an odd mixture of North African Jews. Attached to the colonial divisions, deployed as well for internal security and as labor units, were as many as two dozen battalions of Senegalese. Drawn from sub-Saharan Africa, they were widely regarded and frequently used as shock troops–not least because their allegedly “primitive” nervous systems were supposed to render them less susceptible than Europeans to the horrors of the modern battlefield. Depending on circumstances, their actual performance varied widely, both in Europe and Salonika. France also sent to Salonika three battalions from Madagascar and four from Indochina. Despite the growing shortage of manpower, these units were used only as labor troops. The Vietnamese were regarded as unable to stand the front-line stress of modern war.
The British 10th Division had been reinforced by two Kitchener divisions of volunteers, the 22nd and 26th, and by two more organized from regular army battalions brought back from India upon the outbreak of war. Despite their high proportion of experienced “old sweats,” the 27th and 28th Divisions never quite found their feet on the Western Front. After suffering badly in the trench conditions of the winter of 1914-15, they were decimated in the second battle of Ypres. Sir Douglas Haig seems to have regarded their departure with relative equanimity. The London territorials of the 60th Division would spend some time in Salonika on their way to Palestine. The British had a new commander as well, Sir George Milne, competent and intelligent but not a man to make waves.
Sarrail was so preoccupied with alliance politics and administrative preparations that he was taken by surprise when, on August 17, the Bulgarian army launched an attack of its own. The strategic context was the Austro-German offensive that overran Romania in the last four months of 1916. The Bulgarians were expected to pin the Salonika army in place and thereby convince Romania it had backed the wrong horse. The offensive was also intended to send the Greeks a message by seizing territory as an insurance policy on their continued neutrality. After the war , the Germans had promised, the conquests would be returned–if Greece behaved itself.
The Bulgarians hit the Serbs, deployed on the Allied left, and simultaneously drove for the Aegean Sea through the Rupel Pass, a 100 miles farther east. In the Rupel sector the French lost ground and prisoners, but the Bulgarian attack petered out as it reached the Struma River. To the west the Serbs rallied and held around the town of Ostrovo in four days of hand-to-hand fighting.
Sarrail coped well with surprise. Perhaps he had learned a lesson from his Western Front misfortune. He kept his contin gents in order and proved adept at switching local reserves to threatened sectors with the aid of British trucks. On September 12, he launched his counterpunch. Its projected key was an end run by two French divisions and a Russian brigade from the Allied left, aiming at the transport junction and supply base of Monastir. Two Serb divisions would break the Bulgar center: the massive heights of Mount Kajmakcalan, called the “Butter Churn” for its shape. The British , the Italians, and the rest of the French contingent were to go forward around Lake Doiran and across the Struma. Sarrail expected to push forward to the city of Prilep, then to the Vardar River, cutting the Central Powers’ lines of communication and perhaps rolling them up from the flank in the manner of Napoleon.
Hindsight suggests Sarrail’s plan took little account of terrain and even less of time. Supplying the projected envelopment would become virtually impossible once the fall rains began. That meant a rapid initial advance. Instead the Serbs fought their way to the top of Butter Churn, were driven back by the Bulgarians, then on September 30 recaptured the mountain and held it. To the epic of the Long Retreat was added a victory that became the stuff of legend in the postwar Yugoslavian army. But like so many of its counterparts between 1914 and 1918, the capture of Butter Churn had no consequences. Else where on the Salonika front, the Italians, under tacit instructions from their government, practiced a policy of “live and let live.” British divisions along the Struma and in the Vardar valley demonstrated levels of tactical clumsiness not seen since Loos on the Western Front–a logical consequence of a year spent in a quiet sector. But Sarrail’s real problems developed on the left. The Bulgarians in that sector were well entrenched; the French were tired and unenthusiastic. Sarrail bombarded his subordinates with messages insisting that fighting spirit would overcome barbed wire. He relieved one general who had the initiative to see the front-line obstacles for himself–from the rear cockpit of an airplane, a first in the Great War.
On October 21 it began to rain, further slowing an advance that had already lost most of its momentum. With some German help grudgingly given, the Bulgarians held in front of Monastir until November 19, then withdrew. Serbia’s government-in-exile considered it a fair exchange for the fifth of their army lost in Sarrail’s attacks. Joffre was less sanguine. In December he peremptorily closed down the Salonika front for the winter. For much of this time Greece had been in a virtual state of civil war. Greek troops, unsure who their enemies were, surrendered strategic frontier positions to the Bulgarians without a fight in August. In September, Venizelos established a provisional government on Crete and began raising an “army of national defense.” Sarrail, a republican to his fingertips, enthusiastically supported the Venizelists in Salonika. When, in December, fight ing broke out in Salonika between Greek royalists and Allied forces, and the Allies imposed a blockade on Greece, Sarrail increasingly treated Venizelos as the legitimate head of state.
Joffre’s dismissal in December 1916 brought Sarrail even more to the forefront of French military politics. In January 1917 he was formally designated commander of the Allied Army of the Orient, with all national contingents under his direct authority. His new orders were to fix the enemy in Macedonia while the French and British decided the war on the Western Front. Sarrail saw opportunity beckoning. His radical supporters in parliament were increasingly influential. He had survived his prewar contemporaries in part by virtue of his assignment to Salonika. Now Salonika would bring him at least a marshal’s baton. Sarrail’s operational vision had shifted from the previous autumn’s Napoleonic model to something more appropriate for the Western Front circa 1915. This time he would attack all along the line, wearing out and breaking through a Bulgarian army that by his calculations had to be on the edge of exhaustion. The plan’s lack of subtlety was compounded when Milne decided to shift the British focus from the swampy, malaria ridden Struma valley to the high ground around Lake Doiran. The Doiran sector commanded several main roads into Serbia and Bulgaria. It was correspondingly heavily defended, but Milne was confident that his men, well supported by heavy artillery could break through and break out. Instead the 22nd and 26th Divisions were stopped on their lines of departure by gas, artillery, and machine guns. Milne paused for almost two weeks, until May 8, then sent his infantry forward onto the same killing grounds with the same results. Total casualties for the 22nd and 26th Divisions’ share of the offensive came to around 5,000.
Farther west, French, Italian, and Russian attacks achieved a similar common denominator. A Russian brigade was almost annihilated when it broke through the Bulgarian lines and was left unsupported. The Italian division failed to move its reserves forward quickly enough to support initial successes. French battalions, their ranks by now filled with too many recovered wounded, took no more than necessary chances. The Serbian chief of staff, General Peter Bojovic, was unwilling to sacrifice the rest of his country’s army in what was turning into a fiasco. On May 21, he asked Sarrail to halt the operation.
Milne took a stiff-upper-lip approach to the defeat, assigning primary responsibility in his sector to bad staff work. More serious, he noted, was the tendency of each ally “to look over his shoulder at the other.” Serbia was in the process of purging officers ostensibly seeking to establish a military dictatorship. The central figure of the alleged conspiracy was Colonel Dragutin Dmitrilevic, better known to history under his nom de guerre of Apis. As chief of military intelligence he had been a key figure behind the young Serbian nationalists whose murder of Franz Ferdinand had initiated war in 1914. Whether Apis was in fact conspiring against the monarchy, whether he knew too much for others’ comfort, or whether his trial and sub sequent execution on June 26 had even murkier motives still submerged in the Belgrade archives, his demise and those of his close associates shook the Serbians so badly that they were unwilling to test loyalties and morale in a protracted offensive.
Events in Greece were no less unbalanced. By the spring of 1917, Constantine had abandoned any pretense of neutrality–a logical, but imprudent, response to the virtual Allied occupation of his country. In March, Briand was forced to resign as French premier, removing one of the king’s staunchest international supporters. Greece was under naval blockade, with French ships ready to land troops in Athens to force the king’s abdication. Venizelos saw his opportunity and declared himself willing to accept Constantine’s son Alexander as king should his father “choose” to renounce the throne. This seemed a reasonable compromise, even to a British government suspicious in general of Balkan revolutionaries. On June 11, the Allies demanded Constantine’s abdication. On June 26, Venizelos returned to Athens. Three days later Greece declared war on the Central Powers. Constantine went into Swiss exile, and Alexander assumed the throne, with Venizelos as premier and de facto chief of state.
The adherence of Greece to the Allied camp went far to transform the Salonika campaign into a Third Balkan War. Venizelos ordered full mobilization. Constantine’s authority was respected in the army, but not to a degree that would spark a civil war. Mobilization was implemented with no more than the expected number of cashierings, executions, and minor mutinies. By the summer of 1918, Greece would be able to deliver nine divisions, about a quarter-million men–more than enough to assert postwar claims in Macedonia and Asia Minor.
Greek entry into the war was also more than enough to keep four British divisions–the 22nd, 26th, 27th, and 28th–in Salonika, despite the general staffs objections. The question was whether those divisions would be fighting alone. The Russian brigades were suffering from a defensible sense that they were being used as cannon fodder. The tsar’s abdication in March 1917 and the provisional government’s relaxing of disciplinary regulations compounded confusion among all ranks. Disaffection escalated into mutiny; by January 1918, the Russians were disarmed and interned.
The French contingent faced a crisis as well. By the summer of 1917 it was harder than ever for the ordinary poilu to see how his presence in Salonika contributed to the war’s defining issue: the survival of France. Whatever Sarrail’s political popularity, to the men at the front he was a remote figure whose alleged performances in drawing rooms and bedrooms far exceeded his prowess on the battlefield. In June, after the mutinies on the Western Front, the French high command announced more generous and systematic leave policies for that theater: in principle one week’s home leave every four months. Some politicians went further, advocating that any soldier overseas for more than a year and a half should receive a home furlough. Salonika’s rumor mills transmuted rhetoric to procedure. In July most of a division mutinied when informed–accurately–that they had no right to furloughs and that no ships were available to take them home in any case. The issue was resolved without force. It was nevertheless a warning to senior officers to improve conditions in what even optimists called a pesthole.
The quality of life in Salonika significantly diminished on Au gust 18, 1917, when fire broke out in the old quarter. The buildings were tinder-dry; local fire-fighting capacities were soon exhausted. As long as the flames were confined to the poorer districts, Allied response was minimal. Around 10:00 p.m. flames began singeing the well-to-do. By midnight thousands of refugees were being evacuated by truck and ship. Nearly half the city was eventually destroyed– including most of the good-time zones. Some veterans would later suggest that the Allied offensives of 1918 were impelled by boredom as much as strategy. It was worth taking personal risks to get out of Salonika.
The new year brought a new commander in chief. Sarrail’s position had been shaky ever since the spring. Milne and the Serbian general staff agitated for his replacement. France’s new premier, Georges Clemenceau, disliked Sarrail despite their common political sympathies. His feelings were confirmed when, in August, documents from Sarrail’s headquarters were found in the office of le Bonnet Rouge, an anti-militarist paper financed in part by German agents. Themselves innocuous, they nevertheless linked Sarrail in Clemenceau’s mind with defeatism. Sarrail’s connections could no longer protect him. In December 1917 he was recalled.
Sarrail’s successor, Marie-Louis Guillaumat, had risen to army command on the Western Front, in the process winning high praise as a master of set-piece battles. His successes in the Verdun sector in the aftermath of the 1917 mutinies had done much to restore French confidence at all levels, from front-line trenches to the bureaux of Paris. His service in the colonial army gave him some experience in conducting overseas expeditions. Perhaps best of all Guillaumat was a new broom, an outsider to the gridlocked infighting of Salonika. He improved contact among Allied staffs, in particular establishing cordial personal relations with Milne. He relieved enough officers in the French contingent to encourage the rest. He built bridges to the Balkan contingents, overseeing the Greek army’s reequipment to modern standards and cooperating in the Serbs’ reinforcement from an unexpected source.
As early as 1916, Serbia had been recruiting ethnic Serbs captured by the Russians from the Austro-Hungarian army. As conditions in the POW camps worsened, Croats and Slovenes also began to volunteer. Weeks of negotiation with the Russian provisional government were followed by months of travel to ports where Allied ships waited–Archangel in the north and Port Arthur at the far end of the Trans-Siberian Railway. But by April 1918, more than 16,000 former prisoners of war were on the ground in the Balkans, in Serbian uniform, just a few days’ fighting from home.
Serbia’s war aims had developed in the context of restoring and enlarging a centralized, Orthodox Christian state governed from Belgrade. Not until tsarist Russia’s collapse removed its traditional protector did Serbia agree to cooperate with Croat and Slovene exiles in establishing Yugoslavia. Even then, Serb acquiescence was as much a matter of expedience as conviction. As for a Muslim role, speaking in the summer of 1917, the leader of the Serbian Popular Radical Party was blunt. “When our army crosses the Drina, we will give the Turks [Muslims] twenty-four hours, or even forty-eight hours, of time to return to their ancestral religion [of Orthodox Christianity]. Those who do not wish to do so are to be cut down.” It was not a mind-set boding well for a multicultural state-nation.
Guillaumat tested his improvements in a series of generally successful minor operations in April and May. However, he would not take the armies of Salonika into a major action. In June 1918, he was recalled to France as a possible successor, should one be needed, for Philippe Petain as commander of the French armies, or for Ferdinand Foch as Allied generalissimo. He was replaced by General Louis Franchet d’Esperey.
Franchet d’Esperey had begun the war as a corps commander and relieved General Charles Lanrezac at the head of the 5th Army just before the battle of the Marne. By 1916, he was commanding an army group and was being discussed as a possible successor to Joffre. Franchet d’Esperey’s Catholic religion and royalist connections, however, made him suspect in more republican circles. They also made him a convenient scapegoat for the reverses suffered by the French the German offensive of March-April, 1918. Franchet d’Esperey’s army group bore the brunt of the attacks and suffered the heaviest losses. In a brief interview Clemenceau explained, “I must calm down Parliament….I bear you no ill will.” But Franchet d’Esperey had too much influence simply to be dismissed. Instead he was offered command at Salonika.
As early as 1914 the new Balkan generalissimo had suggested a major offensive in that region as an alternative to the stagnating Western Front. Now he saw a chance to make a mark on history that would overshadow his contemporaries. “I expect from you ferocious energy,” he informed his welcoming committee on June 17. He found willing listeners. Both the British and the Serbs were convinced Bulgaria would collapse if hit hard in the right place–and the Serbs believed they had found that place. The Moglenitsa Mountains, the prewar frontier between Greece and Serbia, offered some of the worst terrain in the theater. But once they were crossed, the valleys and ridges sloped toward the Vardar, the natural line of advance.
The Serbs, argued their new chief of staff, Zvojin Misic, were ideally suited for a surprise attack and a rapid exploitation across this broken ground. Franchet d’Esperey agreed. He went so far as to place two French divisions under Serb command for the operation, and to strip the depots to provide grenades and light machine guns, those irreplaceable elements of mountain warfare, for the Serb infantry. There remained the task of convincing his superiors. Not until August 3 did the Allies’ military representatives in Paris agree to a general offensive from Salonika. It required personal appeals by Guillaumat, who had been a consistent and effective lobbyist for Franchet d’Esperey’s plan, to overcome last-minute British and Italian reservations. And like his British counterpart in Palestine, Sir Edward Allen by, Franchet d’Esperey was clearly informed that he could expect neither men nor supplies should anything go wrong.
“Desperate Frankie,” as the British dubbed him, set “J-Day” for September 15. Twenty heavy guns had been secretly moved to the summits of mountains overlooking the main Bulgarian positions. Almost 500 more were in position to deliver not the traditional barrage but a one-day hurricane bombardment. In its aftermath the Serbs, French, and Italians would go forward to the Vardar. The British, supported by two Greek divisions, would mount a holding attack around Lake Doiran.
The Central Powers’ forces in Macedonia were by now almost entirely Bulgarian. Two corps and one army headquarters, plus some staff officers, were German. So was the commander. General Friedrich von Scholtz had led a corps at Tannenberg and performed well in later assignments in the Eastern theater. A former heavy artilleryman, he was undisturbed by the unprecedented weight of the Allied barrage, but did not expect the at tack to come where it did. Even with the resulting advantages of tactical surprise, it took two days for the Serbs and French to chew through the Bulgarian positions on the Dobropolje ridge line and around Kozyak Mountain.
The French brought flamethrowers into action for the first time in the theater. They used Stokes mortars borrowed from the British, 37-millimeter infantry guns, and light mountain howitzers to bring their infantry into grenade range of machine-gun nests whose crews died where they stood. The Serbs depended on cold steel and raw courage. A British observer said of them: “It is possible that if only Western European troops had been available, the attack would at this stage have petered out.” Elements of the newly christened “Yugoslav Division” were reported singing as they advanced–a scenario more plausible here than in other Great War accounts of similar behavior. It was the turn of the Bulgars to begin looking over their shoulders. German accounts depict a Bulgarian army unable to apply the concept of defense in depth. Instead its officers purportedly used the obsolete technique of massing their troops in forward positions, and as a result could not sustain resistance. In fact the Bulgarians did initially follow the German principle of immediately counterattacking at every opportunity, but they were unable to push the French and the Serbs out of positions just won. When commanders called for reserves, the units available were composed of middle-aged men, poorly fed, poorly equipped, and increasingly unwilling to advance into the high-tech killing zones created by Allied firepower.
On the Western Front, Allied forces were steadily forcing back a German army bled white and fighting without hope. Austria-Hungary’s remaining strength, such as it was, was concentrated in Italy. At Salonika, by September 17, some Bulgarian units were openly refusing orders. Others were falling back spontaneously. Scholtz called for help from Germany and Austria as the Franco-Serbian wedge reached a depth of up to 15 miles. Then, on September 18, the British and Greeks went forward around Lake Doiran. A division of Venizelist Greeks took ground but was halted by a grass fire. The British were fighting on the scene of earlier defeats, with battalions starved of replacements and so riddled with malaria that some men in the rifle companies could barely walk. Staff work recalled the grimmest days of the Somme in 1916, with orders misdirected and misunderstood, units losing touch, and supporting fire directed on the wrong targets at the wrong times. By September 20, the Doiran sector had stabilized–no gain for much pain.
The Bulgarian general responsible for the repulse urged Scholtz to reinforce victory by mounting a major counterattack against the British and Greeks. Go forward on the Struma and around Doiran, General Nerezov argued. Strike directly for Salonika and leave the French and Serbs hanging in the mountains. This time it was Scholtz who flinched. He could expect no significant reinforcements from outside the theater. The logistic problems of Nerezov’s proposed attack impressed him more than its operational prospects. Instead Scholtz and his staff proposed a general withdrawal, luring the Allied spearhead forward and then attacking it from three sides.
Given the often-repeated problems of exploiting victory under the conditions of 1914-18, the plan was sound enough in theory. However, it took too little account of human factors. The Bulgarian troops in the front lines had been on short rations for months. They were outraged by the massive destruction of supplies that accompanied the withdrawal. The regiments in the Doiran sector could not understand why they were retreating from what seemed impregnable positions. Then modern technology took a hand. Air power had to date played limited and conventional roles on the Salonika front: reconnaissance and fire control. But on the morning of September 21, British aircraft reported Bulgarian troops on the move. Quickly, DH9s and Armstrong-Whitworths of 47 Squadron turned the roads and trails leading away from Doiran into chaos. Wrecked vehicles and dead animals piled up in the defiles and at the cross roads as planes made strafing runs from as low as 50 feet.
Caught in place, with no fighter cover and no anti-aircraft, the Bulgarians took to the hills less in panic than despair. The effect, however, was the same: the end of organized, large-scale resistance in the Greek-British sector.
As the Bulgarian left disintegrated, their hard-tried center began crumbling. Serbian advance elements reached the Vardar and crossed the Crna. The French were swinging westward to ward Prilep when Franchet d’Esperey turned his cavalry loose. Horsemen had found little to do in the Macedonian mountains. But Gen. Franois Leon Jouinot-Gambetta commanded two regiments of Chasseurs d’Afrique and a half-dozen squadrons of Moroccan Spahis. He had 20 machine guns and a few 37- millimeter guns on packhorses. He even had four armored cars. Advancing toward Prilep on September 22, the mounted column was overtaken by Franchet d’Esperey himself, using an auto as generals of a later generation would use helicopters. Prilep, he ordered, was to be only the initial objective. After its capture the brigade was to ride for Skopje.
The major city in southern Macedonia, Skopje was 60 miles from Prilep, through country so wild that a few men with automatic weapons could block a division. But for Jouinot-Gambetta the assignment fitted family tradition. His uncle Leon had escaped from Paris in a balloon during the Franco-Prussian War, and a ride behind enemy lines seemed no more than a walk in the sun. Prilep fell without a fight on September 22. Early on the 25th the brigade ‘s advance guards ran into a Bulgarian division. Instead of waiting for infantry to open the road, Jouinot took to the mountains and started his men across the Golenisca Plateau. Nothing on wheels could cross the broken ground, and the troopers spent more time leading their horses than riding them. But the Chasseurs d’Afrique had learned in Algeria how to make long marches over rough country. The Spahis were near-irregulars, recruited from the hard cases of a hard people. And the horses were North African barbs, hardy and sure-footed. The brigade reached Skopje on the night of September 28, and Jouinot struck at first light.
He did not know that he faced a garrison of six battalions, four batteries, two German machine-gun companies, and an armored train. But the Germans and Bulgarians thought the Allies were still 20 miles away. When the Spahis burst out of the dawn mist shouting Arabic war cries, the Bulgarians decamped in all directions. The Germans were too far from home to make panic an option. Rallying on the armored train, which the French had no means of knocking out, they managed to get out, albeit with heavy losses. But by 9:00 a.m., Skopje was firmly in Allied hands.
Franchet d’Esperey found the cavalry’s feat so incredible that he sent two more aircraft to verify the initial report. Skopje’s capture was the final trick in a game that had begun a week ear lier, in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. In theory it was still possible to fight on. Winter was approaching, and the terrain con fronting the Allies was still formidable. But Bulgaria had been at war almost constantly since 1912. More than 100,000 of its men had been killed since 1915. Agriculture had fallen to subsistence levels. Urban workers were hungry and dispirited. Politicians feared revolution on the Russian pattern. Deserters were commandeering trains in desperate efforts to get home. One band of mutineers attacked the army GHQ.
On September 23, the first soviets began forming in Bulgarian cities. Two days later the Bulgarian emperor Ferdinand authorized his commander in chief to seek an armistice. The first of two delegations reached Franchet d’Esperey’s headquarters on the 26th. Open revolt broke out in Sofia and was only sup pressed with the aid of a German division sent from Russia to reinforce a front that no longer existed. Any negotiating room vanished with the announcement of Skopje’s fall. At 10:10 p.m. on September 29, an armistice was concluded. Bulgaria was to demobilize all but token forces for internal security. German and Austrian troops were to evacuate the country or surrender.
“The first of the props had fallen,” wrote British diplomat Sir Maurice Hankey. Franchet d’Esperey declared his army able to “cross Hungary and Austria, mass in Bohemia . . . and march directly on Dresden.” Instead the British contingent, suffering the ravages of influenza as well as malaria, swung toward Constantinople to support Sir Edmund Allenby’s advance from Palestine. The Greeks turned their attention to Asia Minor and Thrace, the projected focal points of a new Magna Graecia. The Serbs fought their way to Nish, then to Belgrade, before collapsing in exhaustion. Franchet d’Esperey’s French divisions, eroded by unreplaced casualties, were more eager to survive the fighting than to seek glory on new fields. But the advance from Salonika was the final blow to an Austria-Hungary already at the point of collapse. On October 29, 1918, the Croat Diet in Zagreb declared its allegiance to the new state of “Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs”–Yugoslavia. On November 11, the last Habsburg emperor abdicated. The consequences of the subsequent shifts in governments, boundaries, and populations remain unresolved at the end of the century. But they are in part the harvest of the gardeners of Salonika. MHQ
DENNIS E. SHOWALTER is professor of history at Colorado College and an MHQ contributing editor. His Tannenberg: Clash of Empires won the American Historical Association’s Paul Birdsall Prize. He is currently visiting professor at the United States Military Academy.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1998 issue (Vol. 10, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Salonika
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