Mayhem and Massacre In Macedonia

The Entente in Macedonia. From left to right: a soldier from Indochina, a Frenchman, a Senegalese, an Englishman, a Russian, an Italian, a Serb, a Greek and an Indian.

THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN, 1915-1918 (Q 36153) The 67th Field Ambulance at Asagi Mahale behind the Doiran Front, Macedonia. Note a motor ambulance presented by Queenswood School. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Serbian artillery in action on the Salonika front in December of 1917.

Serbia, as a belligerent power, was out of the war, but the war was not out of Serbia. After the country was completely occupied, civilian deaths rose sharply in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Prominent civilians, politicians, thinkers and teachers were rounded up and force-marched into the east of the country, occupied by Bulgarian forces. Many ended up at the town of Surdulica, a day’s walk from the Bulgarian frontier, where mass executions took place every day, claiming an unverifiable 9,000 civilian lives in that place alone. The few eyewitnesses who survived testified that killing was at first by shooting, then by bayonet to conserve ammunition, and finally by clubbing with blunt objects and rifle butts. Rape was commonplace. Serbian villages and towns were looted and burned to the ground, livestock driven off, orchards cut down and wells poisoned, to discourage any survivors from returning. Adult males not killed in the massacres were forcibly drafted into the Bulgarian army in blatant contravention of the Rules of War as laid out in the 1899 Hague Convention, to which both Serbia and Bulgaria were signatories. It stipulated that POWs should be removed from danger and not be required to contribute to their captors’ war effort.

Winston Churchill, who had briefly been a prisoner during the Boer War, once defined a POW as ‘a man who asks you not to kill him just after he has failed to kill you’, and it is to be expected that some one-on-one violence occurs in that situation. However the systematic maltreatment of POWs in this campaign was revenge for well-documented Serbian atrocities in the Balkan wars of 1912–13, when whole villages of Albanians and Bulgarians were exterminated, with male inhabitants driven into prepared killing zones at night and there clubbed to death in order not to alarm their families with the noise of rifle shots, after which the houses were fired, to flush out the women and children, who were bayonetted and bludgeoned to death. Soldiers refusing to take part in the massacres were threatened with court martial. The Austro-Hungarian minister in Belgrade commented at the time in an internal memorandum that Serbia was a state where ‘murder and killing have been raised to a system’.

The New Year of 1916 saw the Salonika enclave reinforced with four more Allied divisions, additional Serbian and Italian units and two brigades of the Russian Expeditionary Force – of which, more later. Many of the Tommies and their comrades-in-arms were unclear whether the 90-mile-long wired perimeter was to protect them from the Bulgarians or the anti-Allied Greeks on the other side of the wire. It was, of course, useless against the next threat which literally hung over them at the end of January. A dark-painted Zeppelin based 400 miles away in Hungary – a long journey at roughly 70mph – flew over the Allied base on the last night of the month, dropping several tonnes of bombs on the town of Salonika. Retiring unscathed, it returned on 17 March with equal success. A dawn air raid by several enemy aircraft in March was driven off after three of them4 had been shot down. On the night of 4–5 May, after being awoken by the sound of bombs falling, Lieutenant George Collen wrote down a record5 of the Zepp’s third sortie. He and other officers left their tents to see it coned by searchlights in the night sky. An immense flash that briefly lit up their camp 15 miles inland marked its end after crash-landing on the foreshore. Several units claimed the credit for bringing down the monster, although the crash of the airship is usually attributed to the guns of HMS Agamemnon, moored in the harbour. The eleven-man Zeppelin crew survived the crash-landing and set fire to their highly flammable dirigible before being taken prisoner by French and Serbian cavalry while half-naked after stripping off their soaking uniforms in an attempt to dry off in the feeble sunshine.

On 12 March hundreds of Allied guns opened fire on the Bulgarian positions on high ground along the west of the line. In twenty-four hours more than 200,000 shells were fired at the enemy trenches and fortifications in Sarrail’s bid to ‘break the line’. However, enemy casualties were low because the defenders took shelter in deep concrete bunkers constructed on the reverse slopes of the mountains, where they were hidden from the Allied gunners. On 14 March there began a six-day struggle for the heights dominating the city of Monastir (modern Bitola), where Sarrail’s men suffered heavy casualties. At the mountain called Chervenata Stena or Red Wall five French divisions took ground and were repulsed several times in a slaughter that alternated heavy artillery bombardments with bayonet attacks into machine gun fire so sustained that the Bulgarian defenders ran out of ammunition and took to rolling tree trunks and throwing rocks down on the French soldiers scrambling uphill towards them. Even transport up to the lines was difficult, with the spring rains turning flat land into seas of mud, through which everything had to be pulled by draught mules and oxen, with sledges more practical than wheeled vehicles in the malarial swamps of the Struma valley, where wheels sank into the morass.

Not until early May was the peak finally taken, after the Bulgarians withdrew to neighbouring high ground. On 18 May a new Bulgarian offensive equipped with German hand grenades and flamethrowers – newly introduced to this theatre – and supported by well-sited artillery, caused casualties as high as 75 per cent in the two French regiments on Red Wall, whose survivors made no further move against the enemy. Not until 19 November was a mixed Franco-Serbian force able to capture Monastir, the Serbs having suffered 27,000 casualties, representing one-fifth of their total force. Although Sarrail claimed the ‘liberation’ of the city as a victory, and assigned French, Serbian and other troops to occupy sectors of it, the city was overlooked by Bulgarian artillery on Mount Baba, which bombarded it daily for the rest of the war. Together with damage by bombs dropped from aircraft, this progressively destroyed just about every building until Monastir, once an important Ottoman administrative centre, was flattened. Among the incoming rounds were incendiary shells that set whole streets on fire. According to Swiss investigator Rodolphe Reiss, civilian casualties exceeded 1,500 and the 20,000-plus surviving civilians took shelter in the cellars, which, being below the level of the much damaged sewerage system, swiftly became foul and insanitary, leading in turn to the rapid propagation of infectious diseases including tuberculosis.6 Knowing the inhabitants were spending the nights in the cellars, the Bulgarians took to bombarding the city with gas shells during the night. The gas, being heavier than air, sank into the cellars, causing death after up to half an hour of suffering.

Another enemy was also causing casualties among the Allied troops – and presumably the Germans and Bulgarians on the other side of the lines. If not actually killing many, it certainly put hundreds of men hors de combat. The Allied front in Macedonia included some of the worst malarial land in Europe. To combat the pestilential mosquito, daytime patrols during periods of low activity became fatigue parties, hacking down undergrowth and long grass and pouring diluted creosote into puddles and ponds to kill the larvae. Before going out on a night patrol, each man had to smear his face and neck with mosquito repellent that smelled like almonds and looked like boot polish – and wrap a muslin veil around his head with the ends tucked into his collar.

The major engagement of British troops on the right of the line in 1916 was the first Battle of Lake Dojran at the beginning of August, theoretically in support of General Sarrail’s attempt to break the enemy line west of the River Vardar – a major watercourse that roughly bisects Macedonia north-west to south-east. Various stretches of the river are known by its Greek name of Axios and a Slavonic name, Cerna – meaning black, from the colour of its waters. East of the river at Lake Dojran, which straddled the Greek-Bulgarian border in the centre of the British line, one British division and three French, totalling 45,000 men with 400 artillery pieces in support, launched an offensive against the excellently prepared Bulgarian fortifications around the lake, which were occupied by the 2nd Thracian Infantry Division. The attack went in on 9 August with a heavy artillery barrage, but was repulsed, with heavy losses. Four more attacks on this very hostile rocky terrain, where all the advantages lay with the defenders, followed on 10, 15, 16 and 18 August. All were repulsed by the Bulgarians, who drove the surviving Allied forces back to their start lines, causing a total of 5,024 pointless casualties. Many small wounds were caused by the shirtsleeve order and baggy shorts necessitated by the heat, with steel helmets replaced by soft felt hats, the wide brim turned up at one side.

At the inter-Allied strategy conference held at Chantilly, France, in November 1916 it was agreed that offensives planned for spring of the following year should include an attempt to knock Bulgaria right out of the war using the hotch-potch collection of British, French, Italian, Romanian, Russian and Greek forces in the Salonika enclave. The Allied plan called for attacks to be concerted right along the Macedonian front as soon as the winter weather abated. In anticipation of an Allied attack in the spring, the Bulgarian high command requested six further German divisions, so that it could go over to the offensive in Macedonia, but this request was refused by OHL and the joint German-Bulgarian defenders therefore settled in and consolidated their positions.

The main enemy for the Tommies on the right of the line that winter was the damp and cold. Pte Christopher Hennessy of 2/15th Londons wrote home:

As the bivvies (tents) were open-ended, there was no protection from the Arctic blast. The state of the weather was such that men began volunteering for guard duty. The reason for this was that the guard kept a big fire going all night. On the whole it was a pleasant way to spend a cold night, except that the heat stirred the lice into a frenzy of activity.

In between the few actual battles, men of the BSF came to appreciate the live-and-let-live attitude of ‘Johnny Bulgar’ in the line opposite their positions, who celebrated the Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. Since he had left the British alone on 25 December, the BSF reciprocated on that day. They were still there twelve months later, when King George V sent them a message with the usual ‘hearty good wishes’ and wished them ‘a restful Christmastide and brighter days to come’.

Sarrail’s plan for 1917 looked good on paper, but failed to take into account the fractured command chain and disparate qualities of his heterogeneous forces. It called for Serbian 2nd Army, such as it now was, to attack west of the River Vardar at the same time as British troops advanced east of the river, while a mixed French-Italian force moved against a loop in the river known as the Cerna Bend and a French-Greek force also attacked west of the river. General Milne still regarded the role of the Allied forces in Macedonia as being to hold the German and Bulgarian forces so that they could not be transferred elsewhere, but Sarrail pulled rank and ‘borrowed’ some British units. After many postponements because this or that national contingent was not ready, the British launched the Second Battle of Dojran on 24 April, to find that the defenders had not been idle during the winter, but had improved their positions considerably.

After seven days and nights of pointless losses, it became obvious to Milne that, since none of the other Allied attacks in this theatre was ready, the advantage of simultaneity had been lost. At the Cerna Bend the French-Italian force, whose commanders thought Sarrail’s plan totally unworkable, were strengthened by the arrival of a Russian infantry brigade. What Sarrail thought they would achieve, except being able to exchange intelligible insults with the Bulgarians opposing them, is unknown. The 11th German-Bulgarian army, under German command, had prepared its defensive positions here well, with its best troops in the forward lines and adequate reserves in the rear to deal with any Allied breakthrough. Although out-gunned and out-manned by the Allies opposing them, they had the advantage of the terrain.

The Bulgarian front line consisted of concrete strongpoints and a complicated system of trenches and dugouts for the infantry, protected by wire entanglements up to 15m deep. Allied forces confronting them included sixty-nine Serbian, Italian, French colonial and Russian battalions with more than 500 machine guns and 412 artillery pieces. On 5 May, in the Second Battle of Lake Dojran, ninety-one Italian and French batteries blasted everything in sight opposite them, causing casualties among the Bulgarians occupying the flat terrain, but little damage to the German gunners on the strategically important hills overlooking the plain. The barrage was interrupted by the arrival of German fighter aircraft and the approach of dusk saw firing die down, which enabled the defenders to evacuate casualties and make good breaks in the wire entanglements. The following day was much the same, except that counter-battery fire from the German positions grew more effective thanks to aerial reconnaissance and probing attacks by Allied troops were repulsed without difficulty. On Day 3 of the offensive, the Allied barrage was renewed with thousands of shells raining down on the Bulgarian lines. They responded to probing attacks with probes of their own to ascertain the imminence of the main Allied move.

In fact, the main attack had been put on hold until 9 May because so little had been achieved by all the thousands of shells expended. The use of four observers in baskets slung beneath tethered balloons increased somewhat the accuracy of the fourth day’s Allied barrage but damage to enemy artillery positions was still negligible, with only ten gunners killed or wounded and few guns put out of action. In addition, the enemy was able, by analysing the varying intensity of the Allied barrage along the 23km line to make a very fair guess where the main attack would be coming in.

The attack on an 11km front, involving French, Italian and Russian infantry, went in at 0630hrs on 9 May. The Italians took a stretch of the Bulgarian front lines whose coordinates were well known to the German gunners on the heights, who laid down a barrage that pushed the Italians back to their start lines. A similar story was enacted elsewhere, with heavy losses for the attackers, in several cases because troops of another contingent failed to secure the flanks – and this despite the expenditure of 32,000 shells on that day alone. A desultory series of attacks continued throughout the afternoon. The only significantly successful attack of the day was by the Russian 4th Infantry Regiment at Dabica, where prisoners included four German officers and seventy-plus other ranks. Even this gain could not be held, however. The Russians were pushed back by mid-evening, at which time no Allied gains had been made, for a reported loss of 5,450 casualties, counting dead and wounded, against 1,626 casualties among the Bulgarians and an unknown number of losses among the German troops. Sarrail was a never-give-up type, who followed up with fresh attacks in this sector on 11 and 17 May – all to no avail. On 21 May even he had to admit there was no point in further losses.

The year had seen long periods of boredom for the BSF, which had lost over 5,000 casualties to little gain. As the front sank into stalemate, increasing numbers of BSF were posted to Mesopotamia for General Allenby’s drive against another Johnny – Johnny Turk. Their depleted numbers were made up by local troops, Greece having declared for the Allies on 29 June.

Officers could sometimes get into Salonika and see women in the streets but the men in the depopulated battle zone lived in an all-male world of desolation and discomfort, except for the wounded, who were treated in the base area by Canadian and Australian female nurses and male orderlies. The nurses could on exceptional occasions be enticed to dinner at an officers’ mess, as at Christmas 1917 when Captain Alfred Bundy of Middlesex Regt described in a letter home how he and his brother officers entertained in their mess some of them from the Australian hospital. Rather ungallantly, he described the ladies as so unattractive that only an officer who had had too much to drink would have been likely to make any improper advances. Nursing uniform of ankle-length skirt, long jacket, collar and tie, with leather gloves when off-duty, did little for a girl’s looks. All the same, Bundy had to admit that the female company added to the gaiety of the meal. When a space was cleared for dancing, some officers did their duty while others flirted surreptitiously under the beady eye of the matron, who was chaperoning her girls. It was all very well for him to be picky, but the officers’ entertainment contrasts with the Christmas of the men on the front line around Lake Dorjan, whose only relaxation was taking turns to visit an improvised concert party pantomime in Kalinova, where Robinsoe Crusoe was stranded in Muckidonia with Mrs Crusoe, played for laughs by a most unfeminine soldier in drag.

The memorable event of 1918 – indeed the last memory for many Tommies – was the Third Battle of Lake Dojran, which pitted British 12th Corps, supported by the Seres Division of the Greek army and some of Sarrail’s colonial forces from North Africa, against the Bulgarian 9th Pleven Division that had used its time well to dig in and fortify the opposite bank of the lake under German instructors. During fierce fighting that peaked on 18 and 19 September 1918, every available weapon was employed by both sides, from spotter planes and observation balloons to artillery firing gas shells. On the ground, the dug-in improved Vickers-Maxim machine guns were attacked by men wielding bayonets, sharpened spades and cudgels, useful at close quarters if one survived the approach. A rolling barrage using British 8in howitzers did not greatly facilitate the attackers’ task because they had to advance uphill over broken ground against the enemy positions, scrambling from cover to cover into a hail of fire from German-manufactured Spandau machine guns while wearing cumbersome, primitive respirators – or else risk succumbing to the heavier-than-air gas, probably from British shells, that lingered in the hollows and ravines.

Sweating under a pitiless sun, trying to see the terrain ahead through misted-up goggles, never mind spot the well dug-in enemy machine gun positions, the men were also cut down from above by shrapnel shells fired by more than 100 enemy guns. Above them circled Allied aircraft whose observers, tasked with correcting artillery fire, were unable to make out the situation on the ground through the heat-haze, the gun-smoke and the dust from explosions, or to drop orders to men cut off in the confusion of rocks and ravines below. There were some 200 Allied spotter planes and bombers deployed in the theatre, compared with only thirty or so Taube and Fokker aircraft on the other side.

The Bulgarian front line was overrun and some Greeks reached the second line before being driven back with heavy casualties. The 7th South Wales Borderers were especially hard hit. By the end of the morning, most of the attacking force lay dead or wounded on the slopes, as did its officers, including both colonels. The 12th Cheshire Regiment, 9th South Lancs Regiment and 8th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry lost up to 67 per cent of officers and men after being ordered to advance into interlocking fields of machine gun fire. No Allied gains had been made by the end of the day. Tormented by thirst and wounds, the fallen of both sides wept and called throughout that night for help which did not come.

On Day 2, artillery support was ill coordinated as the Cretans advanced in a dawn attack and took some Bulgarian trenches before being repulsed with heavy losses. Fresh British units and some French colonials again suffered about 50 per cent casualties with no territorial gains in the hopeless assault, echoing the senseless slaughter on the Western Front. Of the British troops, Scots fusiliers and Highlanders of the 77th Brigade advanced with the same difficulty as the Welshmen who lay in their path, dead or dying from the first day’s fighting. The Scots, in turn, left half their number dead or wounded in the futile engagement. By the end of the second day’s fighting, Allied losses were estimated at nearly 8,000 men against less than 3,000 Bulgarian casualties.

All that to occupy a few Bulgarian trenches and the strategically useless ruins of Dojran town, but Milne was hailed as a victorious commander on the grounds that the Dojran action had tied down the Bulgarian reserves and allowed the French–Italian attack to the west of the Vardar to break through the enemy line. Some days later, probing patrols reported a strange silence in the Bulgarian positions around Lake Dojran and found them abandoned. To avoid being taken in the rear by the Allied breakthrough west of the river, the defenders had retreated in good order, leaving rearguards to delay any pursuit.

One hostilities-only officer on the staff of British 28th Division described chasing the enemy up through the Rupell Pass and into Serbia. The way was strewn with cast-off clothing, dead horses, wrecked machine guns, discarded ammunition, deliberately damaged rifles and bayonets with the locking ring torn off. The British were impressed by the way that the German officers had planted gardens to grow chilli and tomatoes in front of Swiss-style chalets they had built along the ravines. Most impressive was a bath-house constructed over a natural hot spring, where officers and men enjoyed a swim in the mineral waters. He considered that the conduct of the Tommies was exemplary, compared with that of the Serbian soldiery who had arrived first, as witness ‘the grim evidence … in the shape of blackened Bulgar corpses at an abandoned hospital … sitting up in their beds and rotting.’ Back in Macedonia, living in tents beside the muddy mule lines, they heard and saw on the night of 10–11 November rockets and flares sent up the Greeks camped nearby. A bugle sounded a call none of the enlisted men recognised, until an old sweat, walking back from a boozy evening in the sergeants’ mess, said, ‘Don’t you know the Cease Fire when you hear it?’

As the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation forces withdrew from Serbian soil in the last months of 1918, what remained of the Serbian army, supported by British and French troops, pushed into the power vacuum and reached their old borders two weeks before the Armistice. Serbian deaths in combat alone were the highest of all the Allied belligerents, at around 26 per cent of all men mobilised.

The total cost of the war to ‘poor little Serbia’? Although awarded some reparations and a little formerly Bulgarian territory under the Treaty of Neuilly in November 1919, and temporarily occupying territory as far north as Pecs in Hungary and Timisoara in Romania, this did little to compensate the material damage to tens of thousands of homes, factories, schools and hospitals which, in today’s terms, would amount to many billions of dollars. And how could this landlocked country get back on its feet with more than half its adult males killed in combat, massacred or dead from disease? In addition, by the end of hostilities, war-crippled Serbia had 114,000 disabled veterans to care for and a half-million orphaned children to support.

The unification of the region by the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which in 1929 became Yugoslavia – or land of the southern Slavs – did nothing to eradicate the legacy of hatred from the events of 1912–13 and 1914–18 that was to spawn another round of genocide during the Second World War and yet again after the break-up of Tito’s Yugoslav Federation following his death in 1980 – conflicting accounts of which still echo in hearings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

It was, of course, impossible for the repatriation and demobilisation of all the Allied forces on the eastern fronts to follow swiftly on the Armistice of 11 November. Most of the officers and virtually all the ‘other ranks’ were still there at Christmas, when General Allenby’s Order of the Day dated seven weeks after the Armistice ordered the men restlessly awaiting return to civilian life to resist the temptations of wine and women! Back home, there were mutinies in Calais and Folkestone and 3,000 soldiers marched through London in protest at their delayed demobilisation. The mood was similar in Macedonia, where Captain Bundy was confronted with a complete breakdown of military discipline among men quite rightly angry that they had been given no indication of when they would be sent home:

I had to talk to a whole company that were disgracefully abusive to their officers. I realised that any show of military authority would be fatal, so I reasoned with them. My remarks were greeted by catcalls and rude noises, but I knew the men were anxious to return to England, so I announced that if there was (insubordination) I should have the offenders arrested and kept back till last.

Some of the BSF boarded ships thinking they were homeward-bound, but ended up at Baku in Azerbaijan, where half the world’s petroleum had been produced before the war from wells owned by the Nobel brothers, better known for smokeless gunpowder and the annual awards. Since Russia’s exit from the war after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, all was not ‘peace on earth and goodwill towards men’ on Christmas Day 1918 there, either. The ‘other ranks’ were confined inside barracks doubly guarded, to avoid clashes with armed patrols of Red Guards who had cut off the power supply. Even the wounded in hospital who were fit enough to use a rifle were placed on standby. A task force of Royal Engineers, protected by armoured cars, managed to get the power station running again on the day after Boxing Day, but a Bolshevik attack was expected at any moment. Some men were also posted to Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula and stationed in what had been the tsarist navy’s barracks. Even there, the Allied command imposed a curfew and provost patrols shot on sight anyone found in the streets after 9 p.m.

It was not just the ‘other ranks’ who resented the long wait to go home. There is a telling photograph taken at Christmas 1918 of four officers clustered around a stove in the tented mess of 95th Russel’s Infantry in Macedonia, looking distinctly glum and miserably cold in their foul weather clothing. Officers and men alike resented the apparently random early selection of men for demob, which was theoretically based on their usefulness in re-starting commerce and industry back home. It took the appointment of Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for War in January 1919 to institute a demob programme based on the principle of first-in, first-out that rewarded a man’s age, length of service and wounds suffered. Ich hatt’ einen Kamerad / ’nen bessern findst Du nicht, the German soldiers sang: I had a comrade, as good as you can find. Soldiers’ songs were never so important for the British armed forces as they were in European armies, inured to marching long distances in Continental conflicts, but something of the same hopeless sadness must have been in the minds of the Tommies who eventually packed up to leave Salonika in 1919, thinking of all their comrades who lay in the extensive war cemeteries all over Macedonia. There were even three men who had been executed by firing squad for unspecified offences, and another executed in Serbia.15 Generals, who can afford to take the strategic view, would say that they had successfully tied down Central Powers’ forces which could have been used elsewhere, but it would be impossible to justify all the British and other Allied deaths in Macedonia by any in-theatre gains.             

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.