Take the main road north from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki, and you are heading for one of the most forgotten battlefields of the First World War. An allied army of half a million men fought here between 1915 and 1918. The casualty rates among the British bear comparison with those of the Gallipoli disaster. Tens of thousands of men on the allied side alone - British, French, Serbian, Russian, Italian - left their bones in the rocky baked earth of these border lands. We live, a hundred years on, in an age which has elevated public remembrance almost to the level of a civic duty; and yet who remembers now those who died in the mountains of Greece and Southern Serbia?
In early summer the low lying country on the road north is lovely: verdant, and vibrant with the colours of the ripening season. Fields of shimmering green wheat alternate with olive groves and meadows of wild flowers: yellow Achillea and pink oleander and orchids and wild strawberry.
It’s here, not more than an hour from the city, that you start to come across the cemeteries. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) maintains twenty-four of them in Greece, the largest of these holding the remains of thousands, the smallest a single grave, that of the poet Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros. The sight of these cemeteries recalls Brooke’s most famous line, “that there is some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England”.
The cemetery at Karasouli is a walled English garden planted in the parched earth of northern Greece. Its carefully manicured grass is kept green and rich by an underground irrigation system installed by the CWGC. Its 1,400 graves are laid out in symmetrical rows with a central pathway leading, in a gentle gradient, to a single stone cross.
Compared to the vast and magnificent cemeteries of France and Flanders, there is something understated about the CWGC cemeteries of Greece. Each grave is marked not by a shining white upright Portland stone headstone but by a modest little concrete block, just a few inches high. Each is inset with a tablet engraved with the name, the regiment and the date of death of the person whose grave it marks.
Before the war was even over, parliament had decided that the bodies of the dead should not be repatriated, despite the wishes of many families to bring their boys home for burial in family churchyards. Instead, they would lie where they fell, together with those with whom they had served, in a perpetual comradeship of the fallen.
The families were given the right to carve words of dedication into the stones. Thus we find Second Lieutenant H. N. MacKay of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders whose family chose to remember him with the words “Called and Chosen and Faithful”. Every thirty to forty years the weather gets the better of these stone tablets and they have to be replaced. The CWGC maintains 23,000 cemeteries in 154 countries worldwide. Each stone needs constant renewal and repair. Thousands of replacement headstones or tablets are engraved each year at the CWGC Headstone Production Unit in Beaurains, France so that those words, chosen by Lt MacKay’s family – “Called and Chosen and Faithful” - will be carved again and again and recalled in perpetuity.
The cemetery at Karasouli was begun in 1916. It is many miles from what was then the active front line. It served a casualty clearing station - a field hospital - for it was a feature of this campaign that of those who died, most succumbed not to enemy action but to disease and to wounds that, in less punishing climates, would have been survivable.
Head north again and it’s not long before the geology changes dramatically and you see why this campaign took so much life. Ahead, flanked by Albania in the west and Bulgaria in the east, the lands of the former Yugoslavia stretch north through the Balkans. They are separated from Greece by a mountain range that rises steeply ahead of you. It is a forbidding sight, black even in the blinding summer sun, giving the impression of an impenetrable natural barrier separating Greece from its Slavic-speaking neighbours to the north.
But it’s not impenetrable. There are three ways through from the north. German forces would one day pour through these three passes to occupy Greece in April 1941. And a quarter of a century earlier it was the same three passes that turned this part of the Balkan peninsula into one of the most challenging battlefields of the First World War.
In these mountains, Imperial Germany’s Bulgarian allies held positions that commanded the plains below. Two peaks dominate the skyline. The first, known as Pip Ridge, rises to 2,000 feet; and a little to the east, the mountaintop the French called the Grand Couronné. On this peak you can still see the white scars left by British artillery attacks in repeated, but fruitless, offensives in 1915, 1917 and 1918. The Official British History of the campaign recalls that this peak “dominated not only the British lines but all the country southward, as far as the eye could see … so completely as to have a serious psychological effect upon the troops, who felt that all their existence was passed beneath the enemy’s eyes.”
And so it was. The Bulgarians could see everything, knew in advance when each assault was coming. The men of the British Salonika Force called this peak “The Devil’s Eye”.
In the vast literature of First World War studies there is almost nothing on this forgotten theatre. The outstanding account is by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody who called their book “Under the Devil’s Eye”. It is a story of repeated failed and, for the most part, futile offensives.
British troops began arriving in Salonika in October 1915, many diverted from the disaster at Gallipoli and having been given little or no time to regain their strength. Salonika had, until 1911, been an impoverished outpost of the Ottoman Empire, but had fallen to the Greeks in the First Balkan War. From their ships, British troops saw, for the first time, what one described as an enchanting place, “a fairy city with white minarets among red roofs”. They were soon disabused. Ashore they found a city steeped in poverty. Soon, animal and human remains were washing up on the beach, as German U-boat activity took its toll on allied shipping heading for Salonika or Palestine.
The allied intervention in Greece was commanded by the French, with the British there in support. Their purpose was to come to the aid of the Serbs who were facing a sustained and, as it turned out, overwhelming Bulgarian assault. The allies were too late; the Serbs were routed just as the first British troops arrived. But the British were sent up country anyway, late in 1915, to fight in the mountains as an unforgiving Balkan winter descended. Survivors would recall struggling through snow shoulder deep, overcoats frozen solid, men equipped for the Gallipoli campaign freezing in light khaki uniforms.
The terrain was equally unyielding. Trenches had to be blasted from solid rock. Lines of supply were hampered by the appalling quality of the roads, many of which were suitable only for donkey transports, run by Indian troops, some of whom lie buried at the CWGC Monastir Road cemetery in Thessaloniki; for despite its futility, this was a fight that drew men from across the British Empire.
The 1915 offensive petered out. The allies abandoned the mountains and fell back to Salonika, the port city where they had disembarked. Here, they were as unprepared for the ferocious summer as they had been for the Balkan winter. Salonika was built on a swamp. Malaria and dysentery swept through the allied encampments. The CWGC cemetery at Lembet Road in Thessaloniki holds 1,648 Commonwealth graves, among them the British nurse Katherine Mary Hurley, who would become a popular folk heroine in post-war Serbia for her work with wounded Serb soldiers.
Casualties among the other allied nations were greater still. There are 8,000 French, 3,500 Italian and 400 Russian dead remembered here. A vast Orthodox Christian mausoleum remembers the 8,000 Serbian dead too - mostly men who had survived the Bulgarian rout of 1915, had fled across the mountains into Albania, and made it to Corfu, only to die from disease once they were safely back on allied territory.
In our own day, serious scholars have challenged the First World War “futility” narrative, the argument that gained popular traction in the 1960s that the whole allied war effort was a pointless waste of life. In his new book “Somme to Victory” the historian Gary Sheffield defends the reputation of Douglas Haig and argues that the Battle of the Somme, in which 20,000 British servicemen were killed on the first day, was not a futile waste but, rather, the event that led, in the end, to the allied victory that saved Europe from German militarism and dictatorship. But even he struggles to find any redemption in the Salonika campaign.
“Somme to Victory” runs to 480 pages. In the entire book, Sheffield gives a single paragraph to the Balkan campaign. “Its point was partly to bully the Greeks to enter the war on the allied side,” Sheffield told me. “The French were in favour of pursuing it for political rather than military reasons. Haig thought it was a waste of time. He wanted the manpower for the main effort in France. But the British government, in the interests of the alliance with France, overruled Haig.”
And so it went on. For three, largely pointless, years. A second major offensive in 1917 was easily repelled by a Bulgarian enemy devastatingly underestimated by allied commanders. In September 1918, the British were still trying to dislodge “Johnny Bulgar” from his impervious mountaintop fortresses, and still being swatted away like flies. It was only when a much larger Franco-Serbian force broke through enemy lines further east, that the Bulgarians abandoned their positions and retreated, to be pursued by British troops who had, until that moment, known only defeat after defeat. But by then the war was all but over anyway. “If they [the allies] had pulled out in 1916” says Sheffield, it wouldn’t have affected the course of the war”.
The men of the British Salonika Force took some pride in the role they had played in the last weeks of the war. The British offensives may have failed to break through, but they at least tied down sufficient numbers of Bulgarian troops to allow the Serbs and the French to break through in the end. And in the rout that followed the sudden Bulgarian collapse, the survivors of the British Salonika Force advanced on Constantinople from the west, hastening the eventual Ottoman collapse.
There is a single grave at Karasouli that drew my interest. As a boy in the 1960s and 70s, I had attended church Armistice Day services at the war memorial in my home village in Galloway in South West Scotland. There are more than forty names from the First World War inscribed there. It is in part a monument to rural depopulation: many of the local men are recorded as having enlisted in Canada, the destination of choice for the landless poor who were being put out of work by the gradual mechanisation of agriculture around the turn of the century.
But Private John Fulton, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, son of John and Fanny Fulton of Low Airyolland Farm, died on September 16, 1916, almost certainly of disease, at the Karasouli casualty clearing station. I know that farm and the house he grew up in. It is a little hill farm for sheep and highland cattle and today is farmed by an old school friend of mine. When I asked him, he knew nothing of the John Fulton who left that house in 1915 to go and die in the Balkans. But had John Fulton survived, and gone on to raise a family, his grandchildren would have been classmates of mine in our village school.
The men who survived the Salonika were dismayed to discover, in postwar Britain, that their sacrifice was largely forgotten, their war unacknowledged. “That evening I sat, clad in an old divvy suit, in my mother’s flat in St John’s Wood,” one survivor wrote of the day he was demobbed. “A strange feeling of loneliness came over me. No longer was the Army there to take care of me; I faced, on my own, a new and strange world”.
They sought each other out, these men of the forgotten Balkan front, and formed the Salonika Reunion Association. It even had its own newsletter called, appropriately, “The Mosquito.”
At Karasouli, visitors are asked to enter their names in a Registry to record their visit. I counted: there had been 160 visits since 2012. Forty a year; fewer than one a week.
But the cemeteries are there, and each man’s name is engraved in Portland stone in perpetuity. They are what stand between the men of that conflict and the cold indifference of posterity.