The Real Gardeners of Salonika

In August 1916, while the Battle of the Somme still raged on the Western Front, Gerald Radcliffe found himself in the Greek port of Salonika (now Thessaloniki). He was there to establish a Graves Registration Unit, to record the burial places of British Army servicemen who had died in hospitals around the city and the mountains to the north.

British troops had arrived in October 1915, as part of a multinational French-led force fighting the Bulgarian army and other allies of Germany. After a short-lived advance, they had been forced back to defend an area which became known as ‘the Birdcage’ on account of the barbed wire which lined its perimeter. They became the object of scorn and ridicule in some quarters, not least from Georges Clemenceau – France’s wartime premier – who famously derided ‘the Gardeners of Salonika’.

It’s hard to imagine the conditions Radcliffe faced in those early days. Accommodation for his team of five men consisted of a small tent, which also served as their office. This second function was hampered by the absence of any furniture, although Radcliffe worried that ‘When the chairs and tables arrive I do not know what the men will do, or where they will go at night…’

Sickness was rife, the climate hot and hostile, and there was no motor transport, meaning laborious travel on foot in a region with few roads. And yet the work progressed. Burial grounds were fenced off, identification markers installed, and lists compiled. By April 1917, around 2,500 graves had been registered and marked.

By November 1918, with Bulgaria defeated, agreements were quickly reached between the British and Greek authorities on the provision of land for war cemeteries, and the records of some 11,000 graves were almost complete. In the early 1920s, the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission began to construct permanent cemeteries around Salonika, and ‘mountain cemeteries’ to the north, on the former battlefields.

Salonika Anglo French Military Cemetery Lembet Road Greece - 00217_001

Sir Robert Lorimer was commissioned to design them. He and his firm also worked on IWGC cemeteries in Italy and Egypt, as well as the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh. Of all of these, Lorimer would state that the ‘mountain cemeteries’ posed the greatest problems. Some were liable to flood, others sited on unstable earth. New quarries had to be created and roads constructed. Whereas the cemeteries of Salonika were filled with standard IWGC headstones, graves in the mountains were marked with low pedestal markers attached to deep concrete blocks. Instead of a freestanding cross, they would contain stone cairns. By the end of 1921, some 17 cemeteries had been planned and 8 were already under construction. After five years, the work was largely finished.

A memorial in honour of all those who fought in the British Salonika Force had been planned for several years, and donations from veterans had raised substantial funds. The IWGC undertook to supervise its construction, and to incorporate the names of the campaign’s ‘missing’: those whose remains had not been recovered or identified, or whose graves were lost or unmarked.

This was particularly significant, since it led the ‘National Battlefield Memorials Committee’, chaired by the Earl of Midleton, to recommend that monuments planned across the world should be combined with the IWGC’s memorials to the ‘missing’, paving the way for the Menin Gate, the Thiepval Memorial, and many others which today rank among the world’s most significant commemorative architecture.

Doiran Memorial unveiling 1926

Designed by Lorimer, the Doiran Memorial took the form of an obelisk flanked by lions sculpted by Walter Gilbert. Two thousand names were inscribed on marble plaques fixed to four pillars around the central monument. It was built among the former trenches of ‘Colonial Hill’, not far from a large cemetery with many graves from September 1918. Surrounded by pine trees and rosemary bushes, it was, as Philip Longworth put it, ‘a symbol of the doggedness of the men who fought there and of the others who built their memorial.’

It was formally unveiled on 25 September 1926, in the presence of many dignitaries, a guard of honour from HMS Resolution and another from the Greek Army, and a detachment of Serbian officers. Large numbers of public attendees were also reported. Among the IWGC’s representatives was Frederic Kenyon, who had helped the Commission define its earliest principles.

General Sir George Milne, commander of the British Salonika Force from 1916, was by now Chief of the Imperial General Staff and unable to attend. Presiding in his stead, Lieutenant-General Sir George Macdonogh – a Commissioner of the IWGC – passed on Milne’s recollections of ‘the friendships formed by British officers and men with their French, Italian and Serbian comrades here, but more especially the esteem and affection in which they held the people and the Army of this fair land of Greece, in which they fought and where so many of them are sleeping their last sleep.’

Macdonogh thanked the Greek people and highlighted ‘the bonds of sympathy that unite our nations.’ He paid tribute to those who died in battle, those who perished of disease in the Struma Valley, and those lost in the Aegean Sea. He said of the memorial:

It is not and is not intended to be a monument to the victors. The passions aroused by the War have long since been stilled, and all we have created here is a memorial to our comrades who died in the performance of their duty far from their homes and from their loved ones. It is a sign of mourning and of gratitude and not of triumph.

Remarkably, Salonika soon became a place of pilgrimage. Most of those who ventured there arrived aboard specially-arranged cruises, such as the voyage chronicled by Ian Hay in Ship of Remembrance, which was organised by the St. Barnabus Society for bereaved family members – wives, sons, daughters – and veterans. Each contributed what they could to the cost.

Gallipoli and Salonika Cruise 1936 leaflet front cover

As the pilgrims progressed ‘up country’, into the mountainous former battlefields, they discovered the hillside cemeteries, with their distinctive rugged aesthetic. ‘All are in beautiful condition,’ wrote Hay. ‘Few flowers grow in that climate of extremes, but the turf is crisp and clean, and the general atmosphere utterly serene and restful. Outside each cemetery, written in English and Greek, is an inscription which proclaims that the ground within is a free gift from the Greek people, to be a perpetual resting place for our dead.’

In the newly-constructed war graves, Hay found a physical manifestation of the scale and diversity of the British Empire’s efforts, which still characterise CWGC cemeteries all over the world:

To wander through one of these cemeteries, and note the diversity of names recorded – names of men, of ranks, of regiments, of counties, of countries – is to read in miniature the roll-call of the Empire… And the avocations of these men are an illuminating reminder of the complicated organisation which goes to make the modern army. Here we have, lying side by side, an infantry private, a sapper, an artillery bombardier, a colonel of Yeomanry, a machine-gun sergeant, a regimental stretcher-bearer, and a Maltese transport driver. Once even… I saw the grave of a Red Cross nurse, in no way differing from those of the men around her.

Over the following years, Salonika often formed part of a joint itinerary with Gallipoli, and pilgrimages continued well into the 1930s, when Cunard White Star assigned one of its top passenger liners to the trip: the Lancastria.

In the summer of 1940, with German forces poised to take control of France, the IWGC installed a new plaque on the memorial. It read:

THE BRITISH EMPIRE

COMMEMORATING HER FALLEN SONS

HONOURS WITH THEM

THEIR DEAD COMRADES OF THE GREEK ARMY

Around the same time, on 17 June 1940, the Lancastria lay off the coast of St Nazaire, assisting in the rescue of some of the last military personnel and civilians to escape from France. She was attacked by German dive bombers and sank rapidly, killing over 4,000 people. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history. Greece would fall the following spring, despite the efforts of Greek and Commonwealth forces.

After the end of the Second World War, the IWGC returned to Salonika. Soon, the Commission’s donkey was once again plodding up to the top of Colonial Hill carrying water. Now, the CWGC cemeteries around the city and on the battlefields retain their rugged beauty. Those who fought and died in this little-known campaign were once called ‘the Gardeners of Salonika’. Today, the real gardeners of Salonika still tend their graves.