I am glad that my friend Ward Price has written this book.
In the first place, no other newspaper correspondent in the Near East can be better qualified for the task, as he has been in close touch with the Allied Army in Salonica since its formation.
Secondly, I think it is of the utmost importance that the American public should be well informed on one of the most complex phases of the Great War. Though I have often marvelled at the thoroughness and accuracy of the knowledge many people in the United States possess as to the problems the Allies have to solve and the difficulties they have to conquer, there can be no doubt that the attitude of Greece in the war has puzzled and distressed those who thought they understood her national aspirations.
Ward Price, one of the ablest of war correspondents, throws a flood of light on this side of the Balkan question. He makes clear the chicanery which prevented the Greeks from following their natural bent. He sweeps aside, once and for all, the hollow pretence of Germany that her dastardly action in Belgium finds a parallel in the treatment of Greece by the Allies.
That is the one point on which public opinion in the United States may need guidance. It was, perhaps, the most plausible of the many specious pleas put forth by Teuton apologists; yet it has not a shred of foundation in fact. Greece, or, to speak correctly, the King of Greece and his pro-German court, broke the solemn treaty entered into with the Serbians. They misled and hoodwinked the chancelleries of the Entente. Not once, but many times, did their acts call for severe treatment at the hands of the Allied nations. They overthrew the Greek Constitution, and imprisoned or drove into exile the statesmen who really represented the Greek people.
Just what this duplicity of King Constantine and his supporters cost the defenders of democracy is set forth herein, chapter and verse, much of it from Ward Price's personal observation.
Therefore, I commend the book most cordially to readers in the United States. It is the most glorious attribute of our common cause that the more widely it is understood the more strongly does it appeal to the heart and brain of humanity. That is why we should welcome all well-informed contributions to the literature of the Great War. They constitute, as has been well said by a great American, "the evidence in the case."
New York City.
How we came.
Allies landed at Salonica, October, 1915. They came at the invitation of M. Venizelos, Greek Premier. Salonica, though neutral territory, was available as a base because Greece was united to Serbia by a treaty of alliance: Venizelos mobilised the Greek Army to co-operate, but King Constantine unconstitutionally drove him from power when the Allies had already begun to land.
Our forces at Salonica were limited at first to a few English and a few French divisions. Later arrived the Serbian Army from Corfu, and Russian and Italian contingents. Later still, one or two Greek divisions raised by Venizelos. The Bulgars have always outnumbered us, have heavier artillery and hold the stronger positions.
First stage, (Oct.-Dec., 1915).
Determined but unsuccessful attempt by French to join hands with the retreating Serbians. Subsequent retirement of French on Salonica, a British division which bad been protecting their flank becoming involved in the retreat.
Second stage, (Jan.-March, 1916).
Creation of the "entrenched camp" of Salonica.
Third stage, (April-June, 1916).
Gradual moving up of the Allied troops towards the Greek frontier. Establishment there of a line to serve either as an advanced position to resist an enemy attack or as a taking-off place for an Allied offensive. Much building of roads, bridges, railways, piers,---the country lacking all such means of transport.
Fourth stage, (July-August, 1916).
Bulgar advance on both flanks, reaching to Lake Ostrovo in the west and Cavalla in the east.
Fifth stage, (Sept.-Nov., 1916).
Thrust back of the offensive of the Bulgars in the west, culminating in the recapture of Monastir.
Holding attacks and local gains on the British sector.
Sixth stage, (Dec., 1916-Feb., 1917).
Winter of enforced inactivity---owing to mud---and preparation for spring offensive.
Seventh stage, (March-May, 1917).
Attacks in force by Allies along front from Lake Ochrida to Lake Doiran. Heavy fighting, but no substantial gain of ground.
Eighth stage, (June, 1917).
Occupation of Thessaly by Allies. Restoration of Venizelos to power and acquisition of co-operation of the Greek Army.
Present situation, (summer, 1917).
Eighteen months of very great labour, much sickness and hard fighting, whenever occasion offered, have left the Balkan campaign in a temporary condition of deadlock. As things stand at present the enemy's front and our own have proved mutually impregnable. Future developments may alter this, notably the arrival of Greek reinforcements.
"WHAT is the Salonica Army doing?" is a question which hundreds of thousands of Englishmen have asked at one time or another, and one which this book is an attempt, however inadequate, to answer. But the spirit of the question really goes beyond the letter, and the average man by this enquiry means, "Why has the Salonica Army not done more?"
The aims for which an Allied expedition to the Balkans was warmly advocated, especially in France, in the autumn of 1915, have fallen a great way short of the fulfilment then expected for them. The rescue of invaded Serbia and the erection of a barrier across Germany's direct road to Turkey were the ends to which the public looked at the time of the landing at Salonica, and the feeling of disappointment that no such striking and decisive goals have been achieved has bred a mood of dissatisfaction with the Allied Army in the Balkans which it by no means deserves, when its quite inadequate numbers and equipment for tasks of such magnitude are taken into consideration. First of all the Allies arrived in the Balkans too late to do anything big there. Had they come a little earlier, ---in July, 1915, for instance. to reinforce the Serbian Army, which was then still in existence as a fighting force, it might possibly have been a different story. But in October, when our troops began to land, Serbia was already lost, outnumbered and overwhelmed by the Austrians from the north and the Bulgars from the east. In consequence of this, the Balkan Army, after a bold but ineffective attempt to join up with the retreating Serbs, to save at any rate the southern part of the country from the invader, was thrown solely upon its own resources to achieve what it might. Nor did any of the help which had been half counted upon when the expedition was first decided come from the Greek Army. Instead, the Greeks, after Venizelos had been driven from office by King Constantine, constituted themselves, in our rear and all around us, a virtual enemy all the more dangerous for being unavowed.
Starting from this stone-cold beginning then, with the Bulgars and their German allies in full possession of Serbia and ourselves having no more than a precarious footing upon the somewhat dubiously neutral soil of Greece, let us consider some of the obstacles which the Allied Army of the Orient has since had to overcome.
First and fundamental among these obstacles has been the necessity of creating, importing and improvising, in a mother-naked land, the whole of the elaborate organisation which a modern army requires as a foundation to work upon. When you step out of Salonica you step into a virtual desert, roadless, treeless, uncultivated, populated only by scattered villages of the most primitive kind, inhabited by a low-grade peasantry. We found here none of the materials which modern armies need for their use, none of that machinery of civilisation which in France, for instance, lies ready-made to the hand. Two roads, in a condition quite inadequate to support heavy traffic, and three single lines of railway ran, at the most divergent angles possible, from Salonica towards the enemy's territory. Apart from these there was hardly even a track which in winter was possible for wheeled traffic. So that from the very beginning the Allied Forces have had to build up slowly, laboriously, the whole of the system of locomotion necessary for themselves and their supplies,---piers, roads, bridges, railways,---all have had to be created where nothing of the kind previously existed. The army, in fact, has only been able to move upcountry at all on condition of dragging with it a slowspun network of means of communication.
A handicap that has weighed heavily upon the Balkan Army is a climate most unpropitious for soldiering, cold and wet in winter, hot and feverish in summer. In fact the campaigning season in the Balkans may be said to be limited by weather conditions to a few weeks of the spring and autumn of each year. Winter, right up to the beginning of April, is a season of snow, rain, and, above all, mud. Tracks dissolve into quagmires; main roads break up into holes and ridges impassable for motor-traffic, and transport becomes a matter of the very greatest difficulty, testing almost to breaking-point any organisation of the service of supply.
It has not, moreover, been entirely an element of strength to the Balkan campaign that our army there is made up of contingents of all the Allies. With the best will in the world a mixed force will not work together so well as a homogeneous one. There are differences of language, differences of method, differences of character. Each of the Allied contingents has its own Staff, whose ideas have to be co-ordinated with those of the French General Staff, under General Sarrail, the Commander-in-Chief. Coalitions never yet did work without a certain amount of friction now and then. The Allied Governments themselves have to hold constant Councils to keep their views in harmony. Perhaps the creation of an Allied General Staff at Salonica would obviate the little misunderstandings that at present inevitably arise sometimes between the contingents of six nationalities that make up our force in the Balkans.
Under the restrictions that I have detailed above, what has the Allied Army in the Balkans achieved since October, 1915? Certain facts may be claimed to stand clearly to its credit:
1. If the Allies had not come to Salonica the Germans would have overrun and mastered the whole of the Balkan Peninsula.
This may be regarded as sure. The Greek king was already their man. His people have certainly always been against fighting anybody, for the Germans or against them, but the Germans would have known how to change all that.
2. Germany would have established a submarine base at Salonica, and even made of it a Mediterranean Kiel, if we had not occupied it.
This is also likely. On the other hand the Allied Fleets in that case could have blockaded Salonica as they blockade the Austrian ports, and the Germans have so many submarine bases in the Mediterranean already that they do not urgently need any more.
3. Our forces in the Balkans have held up a relatively greater number of the enemy.
The superiority in number of Germans, Austrians, Bulgars and Turks against us has sometimes been as great as 40,000-50,000 men. The Balkan Army has more than pulled its weight. But if it had never been sent to the Balkans it would have been pulling just as much weight on some other front, and probably at much less cost, for the great argument against maintaining a merely holding-front at the other end of Europe is its terrible costliness, especially in sea-transport.
4. It has given the Serbs back Monastir and kept them together and in heart as a nation.
This is indisputable. The Serbs must have lost their spirit long ago if it were not that they have been able to fight their way back on to a narrow fringe of Serbian soil.
But in trying to form an opinion as to whether the Salonica expedition was or was not a wise enterprise to undertake, it must not be forgotten how greatly and unexpectedly the general conditions of the war have changed since our landing there was made. In 1915 there was apparently good reason for hoping that effective co-operation might be possible between a force based on Salonica and the Russians. We did not then know to what extent pro-German internal forces were at work in Russia, deliberately restricting her military action. If Russia had been knocking at the Bulgarian door on the other side our fortunes in the Balkans might have been far otherwise. The entry of Roumania into the war was the event to which the Allied Governments looked forward as the great opportunity for the Salonica force to begin an offensive against Bulgaria, henceforth threatened from two sides. But the misguided strategy which sent the greater part of the Roumanian Army on a badly organised invasion of Transylvania, in pursuit of an immediate territorial objective instead of using it to co-operate with the Allies at Salonica, defeated this hope, which in any case could hardly have been realised, in view of the treachery with which the Russian Government then in power deliberately abandoned Roumania to the enemy in pursuit of its policy of pro-Germanism and a separate peace.
It must not be supposed that the Allied Army in the Balkans has accepted its present situation of stalemate through inertia. Not only has it fought vigorously in the offensives, that it has undertaken, but it has cast about for other plans of campaign to follow, other routes of penetration into the enemy's country.
Apart from all speculation as to what might have been done by the Salonica Army under different conditions, as to what point on the map might have been reached, as to whether or not it was ever possible to drive a wedge into Germany's line of communications with Turkey, there are considerations of a larger nature to be borne in mind. England, especially, cannot afford to disinterest herself from the Balkans, because the Balkans are one of the principal stepping-stones on the way to India. Whatever else might be the conditions on which the war were brought to an end, a peace which left Germany with undisputed rule or even undisputed influence over the Balkans would be a German victory, and the vast sacrifices which she and her allies have made would be held by, Germany to be justified, if, as a result of them, she could consolidate this first great stage of her thrust towards India and that dominion in Middle Asia which has always been the traditional goal of world-conquerors and the possession of which is the historical symbol of world-supremacy.
It is therefore of the first importance to the British Empire that there should be in the Balkans a barrier-state across the path of this German Drang nach Osten. Egypt and the Suez Canal have lost much of their importance as the gatehouse of the East now that the trans-Balkan railway runs straight through from Berlin to Bagdad. To quote a distinguished officer who has much studied the strategic problems of the Mediterranean: "The frontier of India should be at Belgrade; we are actually defending it at Bagdad, and if the war leaves Germany with a strengthened position in the Near East, the day may come when we have to defend it at Bombay."
All that seems, indeed, to presume a perpetuation of the state of semi-hostility that we all hope the war will somehow abolish as the normal peace-time condition of international affairs, but until there are more signs than are at present manifest that the German leopard is going to change his spots and that German schemes for substituting Germania for Britannia throughout the world have ceased to be cherished the defence of our Indian Empire will have to be taken into the consideration of our statesmen.
Our interest in Serbia, then, is not merely the sentimental one of a big ally for a small; it is based on something more tangible than sympathy for "gallant little Serbia." In the Serbians, with their strongly marked national character, their passion for independence, their traditional Slav hostility towards the Teuton, we find the natural buffer-state which should bar Germany's way towards India and the East and cut her off from that outlet to the Mediterranean at Salonica, which, if she gained it, would change the world's naval balance of power, and force us for the defence of Egypt constantly to maintain a large fleet in the Levant.
Our going to Salonica has had, then, this advantageous consequence,---it has been a practical guarantee that the great and vital interests which the Allies, especially ourselves, possess in the Balkans, should not be lost sight of; that public attention should be kept alive and well-informed upon a part of the world where our diplomatic blunders in the past have wrought us only too much harm, and that the Serbs, that virile little people whom destiny and the situation of their country have called to play so important a part in the modern history of Europe, should have received a practical gage of the Allies' support.
For it must be remembered that had we not gone to Salonica the Serbian nation by now would have been little more than a memory. Practically the whole of their country has lain for two years under the hand of an enemy who has been working with all his talent for organisation to stamp out from the invaded land the consciousness of a separate race. Serbia has been deliberately divided up between the Austrians and the Bulgars. Hungarian and Bulgar merchants and bankers have established themselves in the towns. All the population capable of working has been drafted out of the country in captive gangs to unknown destinations.
Under these conditions of defencelessness live the great majority of the wives and children of the Serbian Army now fighting by our side in the Balkans, cut off from all communication with or knowledge of their relatives. It is not to be supposed that this army, the pathetic remnant of the manhood of Serbia, could ever have been re-formed after its complete disorganisation in the retreat across Albania, could ever have found the spirit to fight again so gallantly and hopefully as it is doing, anywhere else than on the threshold of its own country. The offers of peace which the enemy has held out to the Serbian Government, proposing to them immediate realisation of the ideal of Greater Serbia (the union of all Serbs, Croats and Slovenes into one country) under Austrian supremacy but with a large measure of autonomy. have been steadfastly refused, thanks to the confidence and hope with which the close co-operation of the Allies in the field has filled the Serbians.
But had we deliberately abandoned Serbia to the fate from which we were in fact powerless to save. her, it is difficult to see how the Serbs would have kept up their courage and unyielding enthusiasm for the cause of the Allies during these two years of exile from their homes.
So much for the history of the Allied Army in the Balkans up to now. What, on the other hand, are the possibilities that lie before it in the future?
This summer of 1917 has seen a most important political change in the situation in the Balkans which may have the effect of giving more scope to the Salonica Army: M. Venizelos has been restored to power and has declared the Greek Army to be on our side against the Bulgars.
The extent to which the Greek Army will help us to make good in the Balkans, however, depends obviously upon the extent to which it is employed as an addition to our present strength and not as a substitute for troops which are now, or were until recently, there.
When I say "make good in the Balkans " I mean do something which will seriously interfere with the full use of the Balkans which the Germans have at present as a channel of communication with the Near East and as the hyphen of "Middle-Europe." For all that the Allies have been able to do towards that end up to now, we might as well have never left the entrenched camp of Salonica.
Once again, let no one blame the Salonica Force, nor the Allied Army in the Balkans of which it forms a part, nor yet the Higher Command. They have done all they could with the resources and the strength they had. They are up against difficulties that must be seen to be understood. It must be remembered that Salonica, more than any other part of the war, is a joint undertaking of the Allies, and amid all the difficulties which attend a coalition the British General Staff has always taken a line that is coldly practical, uninfluenced by illusion, however attractive.
Even supposing that you could get out to Salonica the men and the stores and the supplies for a largely increased army, there would remain the problem of land-transport in the actual area of operations. In the mountainous Balkans you are forced to use very much pack and horse-drawn transport, and it is the forage required for the animals that constitutes the problem of the supply question, not the food for the troops. Of course, a great deal of motor-transport, too, is needed. To supply our single army corps on the Struma last winter a very large number of motor-lorries was required, and there was only one road for all of them to run on.
As a principle it has been demonstrated that if an army is going to attack it must have a railway behind it. Accordingly, if the Balkan Army is to penetrate into the territory now held by the enemy deeply enough to interfere with Germany's trans-Balkan system of communications, there is only one way for it to go,---up the Vardar, for that way lies the only railway-line. Transport up the Kresna defile, the shortest way to Sofia, would have to be by road.
What, then, remains for the Balkan Army to do to help in winning the war?
It has one clear and important function left. It is firmly established on the threshold of the enemy's stronghold at the very point where the edifice is weakest. The Balkans are the hinge and pivot of Germany's schemes of conquest in this war. Northern France, Belgium, perhaps even Alsace-Lorraine, she would abandon with equanimity if only she can keep her hold on this avenue to the East. India, the symbol of world-empire, draws her like a magnet, and the road to it lies through Belgrade, Sofia and Constantinople. Her hand is at the present moment on the door of the unexplored treasure-house of Asia Minor, and she is desperately anxious to keep it there. Her success in doing so depends entirely on her power to maintain the control of the Balkans that she has been consolidating during the last two years. Bulgaria is acquired to German interests by the bribe of the Serbian territory in Macedonia that she covets, by the alluring prospect of holding the hegemony over the whole Balkans under German auspices, and by the personal influence of her crafty German king. Turkey is an invertebrate nation, with no such institution as public opinion, and the despotic clique that rules it is absolutely in the grip of Germany. Through them the Germans have drawn into their hands all the machinery of government.
This state of affairs in the Balkans will last for so long a time as Germany is unbeaten in the major theatres of war. But when it becomes evident, as sooner or later it must, that the German colossus is cracking, these vassal-states will begin to see that their safety lies in getting out before the final collapse comes. The rats will look for a way out of the sinking ship.
At that moment the existence of a powerful Allied Army on the spot in the Balkans will be of great value. It will apply the external pressure that will hasten the internal crumbling; it will be ready to widen the fissure, to spring into the gap between Germany and her Near Eastern allies and apply leverage to enlarge it.
We have got to beat the Germans in the West, but we must also be ready to seize instantly upon the first-fruits of that victory in other fields, when they begin to appear in the form of wilting on the part of the Bulgars or Turks. For though we win in the West we shall nevertheless lose the war for practical purposes unless we also stamp the Germans out of the Balkans. The greater must precede the less. Victory in the Balkans will come as consequence and corollary of victory in France, but only if we are ready to seize with both hands upon the first signs of enemy enfeeblement. By so doing, too, we may be able to set up a reciprocal process of dismemberment that will react effectively upon the break-up of the German military power in the West, and so hasten the realisation of both the major and the minor victory.
It will be the function of the Allied Army in the Balkans always to hold itself ready for that vital opportunity.
SEPTEMBER 30, 1915, may be regarded as the day when the Salonica Expedition took its place among the war plans of the Allies.
During the two previous months the military situation in the Near East had been forcing itself more and more urgently upon the attention of the French and English Governments. At the Dardanelles the fierce fighting of the summer had only emphasised the deadlock in which the Allied Forces were involved. In the Balkans it became clear as the autumn drew on that Austria was about to carry out an attack in overwhelming force upon the Serbians, who were already worn with much fighting, and reduced in numbers by disease. Bulgaria's deceitful neutrality was wearing thin, in spite of the well-meant but lamentably misinformed assurances of her friends in England that she would never forget the gratitude due to her traditional friends, the English, and would never ally herself against her kinsmen, the Russians. For all the bluffing interviews given by M. Radoslavoff to the "Temps," it was constantly growing more sure that the Bulgar's hatred of the Serb, and his resentment at the loss of the spoils of the first Balkan War which he had suffered by the Treaty of Bucharest, would finally bring him to league himself with the Central Empires, to which his crafty and influential monarch by family and financial interest belonged.
When Bulgaria, on September 10, 1915, at length ordered a general mobilisation, Serbia found herself threatened by imminent invasion from two sides of her kingdom.
Meanwhile the Balkan Expedition was shaping in Paris. M. Millerand, Minister of War, sent for General Sarrail, who on July 22nd had returned to the capital from his command at Verdun, and asked him to submit a report on possible expeditions which might be undertaken in the Near East. He was to adopt as basis for his investigation the supposition, first, that the troops available would be limited to General Bailloud's French Division from the Dardanelles reinforced by a brigade from France; and secondly, he was to report what might further be accomplished with larger effectives, and what strength would be necessary to achieve more important ends.
During that late summer of 1915, then, when uneasiness was gradually spreading, both in England and in France, as to our situation in the Near East, when the heavy losses, the inability to advance, and the appearance of enemy submarines to threaten our communications at the Dardanelles were making it clearer every day that it was beyond our strength to force a way through to Constantinople, when Germany was clearly preparing for a powerful thrust southwards in the Balkans, to gain control of the railway line that would give her through communication with Constantinople, and still more imperil our situation in the Gallipoli Peninsula, General Sarrail, on whom the responsibility for the chief command of the Allies in the Balkans has rested for the last two years, was sitting shut up in his room in Paris, like a student preparing for an examination, in front of a large table covered with Staff maps, studying the possibilities of new diversions that might be made in the Levant. There were several schemes that he had to investigate; they were being much discussed unofficially at the time, and each of them had its partisans.
Of these the plan of landing at Salonica found the most general favour because:
(1) There was a good harbour there.
(2) There were railways running up-country.
(3) The town disposed of a certain amount of modern resources.
(4) An expeditionary force based on Salonica could be used either to supplant or to supplement the operations at the Dardanelles.
(5) At this time (summer, 1915), the Greek Government under M. Venizelos was thoroughly pro-Ally, and, had the King not acted unconstitutionally later in driving him from office, there would have been a good chance of the Greek Army coming in with us.
But before the report which General Sarrail submitted could be studied by the French Government, the quick march of events in the Balkans imposed an immediate decision. On September 29th, the Bulgars, without declaring war, attacked the Serbian frontier at Cadibogaz. For a week the Serbs had already been falling back from the Danube in the face of invading Austro-German forces half as strong again as themselves. If Serbia was to be saved from complete annihilation, Allied reinforcements must be sent to her at once. Strategical considerations made it urgent that anything possible should, in fact, be done to prevent a successful German invasion of Serbia. For this would make the dream of "Middle Europe" a temporary reality, would consolidate and immensely strengthen the situation of the Central Powers and their relations with their Allies, and would put Berlin in three-day railway communication with Constantinople, opening up to Germany the granary of Asia Minor, and enabling trainloads of shells to reach the Turkish capital without breaking bulk between an Essen factory-yard and the Sirkedji railway station by the Golden Horn. Public opinion, too, both in France and England eagerly desired that something should be done to help Serbia. The idea that a little nation which had fought so gallantly should now be abandoned to an overwhelming invasion without an effort being made to save her, was repugnant to the chivalrous feelings of the French and English nations. The French Press, especially, was urgent with demands that 400,000 men should be sent "at once" to the Balkans. The publicists who agitated for these energetic measures had not, however, paused to calculate the time necessary to concentrate such a number of troops, to organise their despatch, and above all to arrange sea-transport for them. The matter-of-fact truth is that at the end of September, 1915, when this Balkan campaign was undertaken, it was already too late to bring effective help to our Serbian Allies at the other end of Europe. The conditions were not equal. The invaders of Serbia had the whole of the resources of their highly organised industrial countries at a distance of only a few hours by train behind them, and they were already on the spot; while it remained for us, first to organise, and then to despatch an expedition which would have to be conveyed and supplied over thousands of miles of railway and sea.
But at the beginning of October the decision to launch the Balkan campaign had been reached; the Allies had been in negotiation with M. Venizelos, the Greek Premier, about landing at Salonica; the assent of the Greek Government had been obtained; and although Venizelos himself, through the opposition of the King, was shortly afterwards driven from office, and the co-operation of the Greek Army which had once been hoped for was no longer in sight, the arrangement held good. The wheels that such resolutions set in motion are too complicated to be lightly stopped.
Speediness in the arrival of our troops in the Balkans was of the first importance. General Bailloud's French Division from Cape Helles, and the 10th Division under General Sir Bryan Mahon from Suvla, were accordingly hurried over from the Dardanelles, and their first detachments landed at Salonica on October 5th. Other forces were to follow immediately from France. General Sarrail left on October 7th for Salonica, where he arrived on October 12th, but the haste with which this expedition for the rescue of Serbia had necessarily been organised was evident from the first. Twice during General Sarrail's voyage from Paris to Salonica his instructions as to the plan of campaign to be followed were changed. At the moment of his arrival the decision stood that the French forces were to remain concentrated at Salonica, but, forty-eight hours later, under the pressure of events, and in response to telegraphic reports and proposals received from General Sarrail himself, this scheme was altered, and permission was given to the French Commander to make an effort, desperate although the situation in Serbia by this time was, to push up the Vardar, and try to join hands with the Serbian Army where it stood at bay.
The troops now at Salonica available for this operation were:
General Bailloud's Division (the 156th).
The 113th Brigade from France.
The 10th English Division from the Dardanelles. Two more French Divisions, (the 57th, formed of the 113th Brigade and another which arrived, and the 122nd, from France), landed shortly afterwards in time to follow up-country and play their part in the operations in Serbia.
The 10th English Division had come with orders from the British Government to establish itself for the winter in Salonica and not to cross the Greek frontier unless this was violated, but on the decision being reached that the French should push up into Serbia, General Mahon received authorisation from London to advance the l0th Division as far as Lake Doiran, just across the Greek frontier. Here he relieved the French who were holding the right wing of the Allied front, and protected the line of communications of the main French force which had been pushed on and become engaged with the enemy eighty miles up the Vardar from Salonica. A suggestion that the English troops should instead proceed to the support of the Serbs in the Babouna pass, by way of Monastir, was held to be too hazardous and far-distant an operation to be practicable. In addition the idea was opposed by the Greeks, who were already obstructing us as much as possible.
The principles upon which the French Government had decided on the advance of its troops into Serbia. were those of demonstrating to the Serbs, now in desperate straits, that the Allied ]Powers had not deserted them, and also of contributing some material help, however slight, to their outnumbered army. As regards the latter aim there were two ways in which this might be effected. The French troops might have been rushed up the railway to Nish directly each detachment of them arrived. This was the desire of the Serbian Government, and it was awaited by them with such confidence that the town of Nish in the second week of October was beflagged in expectation of the immediate arrival of the Allied reinforcements. Or, secondly, General Sarrail might have contented himself with occupying the Vardar valley so as to protect Serbia's sole line of communications with the outside world. The considerations which governed the choice between these alternatives were, first, the time available to the Allies, and second, the strength of the forces at their disposal. Of these, the first was so short, and the second so limited, that General Sarrail. decided for the latter scheme,---an advance up the Vardar valley to secure the railway line, and to threaten the flank of the invading Bulgars.
The reasons against hurrying the French troops right up the railway to Nish, nearly 200 miles distant from Salonica, were several. First of all, the result would simply have been that the French divisions would have been engaged battalion by battalion as they arrived at Nish. Their strength was not sufficient for them to have made any considerable difference to the general situation, and in consequence of such action General Sarrail, instead of having under his own hand the force with the command of which the French Government had entrusted him, would have been obliged to transfer the practical authority over his troops to Serbian General Headquarters. The French Army would furthermore inevitably have become involved in the. disastrous Serbian retreat across Albania which followed. Moreover, by this time the very evident hostility of the Greek Government and the pro-German attitude of King Constantine made it necessary to take special heed of the safety of our lines of communication, and even of our base at Salonica. We were surrounded on all sides by the Greek Army on a war footing. Many of its officers openly showed preference for our enemies, and we had always to bear in mind the possibility of a sudden and treacherous attack upon our rear.
On October 14th, then, the French advance northwards up the Vardar began, with the limited objects of securing the railway, with the defiles and tunnels through which it passes, and of joining hands with the Serbs, if the developments of their retreat should be such as to make that possible. On October 19th, General Bailloud established his headquarters at Strumnitza Station, and during the following week his division began to drive the Bulgars back in the hilly region to the east of the line towards the Bulgarian frontier. The French occupied Tatarli, Kalkali, and the ridge to the north of these villages, thus securing a position which our l0th Division later took over from them. On October 26th the first detachments of this English division began, indeed, to arrive on the sector between Dedeli and Lake Doiran.
During the first fortnight in November the French continued to be fairly actively engaged with the Bulgars in the right angle formed by the road running from Strumnitza Station to Strumnitza town,---the two places being separated by a distance of twelve miles of mountain as the crow flies. In this sector, on November 11th, they took Hill 517, on which stands the village of Islaz, by a frontal infantry attack in three waves which carried two Bulgar positions in one rush.
So much for the right wing of our forces now established in as advanced a position as it was ever to reach. Meanwhile the left and more mobile wing of the Allied Army in the Balkans had pushed further north. Their advance up the railway line was made by successive stages, the first point north of Strumnitza Station that was occupied being the ravine of Demir Kapu. This was a most important place to secure. for here the railway and river are penned up together in a narrow gorge ten miles long, which acts as the neck of a bottle, restricting the main route of ingress into Southern Macedonia from the north. The entrance to this ten-mile corridor is a narrow gap just wide enough for the brown, swirling river to pass between perpendicular walls of rock, 600 feet high. The railway only gets through by tunnelling into the mountain alongside.
The Demir Kapu defile was, in fact, seized only just in time, for the Bulgars were already advancing to the river from the east. So quickly did they come on, in hot pursuit of some Serbian frontier-guards, that they ran quite unexpectedly into some French outposts thrown out on the left bank of the river. The enemy was unable to establish a fixed position, however, to threaten the defile, and could only shell it irregularly with small mountain guns.
The next stage of Sarrail's up-river advance was to the town of Krivolak, which stands on the Vardar, twenty miles south-east of Veles, otherwise called Kuprulu. The first French brigade arrived at Krivolak on October 20th.
Up to this date it had been General Sarrail's intention to go on to Veles, where the Serbian General Vasitch held out, though almost surrounded, until October 28th. The junction between the French and the Serbs at Veles, if it could have been brought about, as it might have been had the Allies landed in Salonica a fortnight earlier, would have changed the whole fate of the Serbian Army. Not only would it have secured to them a line of supply by rail from Salonica and the sea, but it would have kept open an avenue of retreat down which they might have fallen back without undue hardship onto our new Allied base, instead of being obliged, as they eventually were, to undertake that terrible and costly march across the pathless mountains of Albania through mid-winter snows.
But the lateness of the arrival of the Allied troops in the Balkans had laid a blight upon this scheme which withered it utterly. Uskub had been taken on October 9th, after heavy fighting. Veles fell on the 28th. The cutting of the railway at these points, which severed the Serbian Government at Nish and the Serbian Armies in the valleys of the Southern and Western Morava, at Tetovo, and in the Babouna pass, from all communication with the south, was the first great achievement of the Bulgarian invasion. It drove a wedge between the Serbians retiring southwestwards and the French advancing northwards up the Vardar to their succour. Was it still possible, in spite of the enemy forces thus thrust between them, for the junction between these two Allied Armies to be effected by fighting? Two attempts were made to accomplish this. Each was a forlorn hope, and neither met with success.
To begin with, it was clear that the French forces advancing up the Vardar were nothing like strong enough to retake Veles so as to join the Serbians there. The possibilities of the limited number of troops which the French possessed were in fact exhausted. Two French divisions had reached Krivolak,---the 57th and the 122nd. The third French division, the 156th, was back down the Vardar at Strumnitza, engaged, together with the English, in ensuring the long line of communications of this small force. The idea of advancing from Krivolak upon the Bulgars at Veles was not to be thought of. It would have been to run upon sure disaster.
But if the French could not retake Veles from the Bulgars, could the Serbs do it?
The Serbs tried to in the first week of November. This attempt is known as "The manoeuvre of Katchanik." It failed. To understand it without going into too complicated detail, it must be remembered that under the converging pressure of the Austrians and Bulgarians, the Serbian Army had now fallen back into the region west of Uskub, which, together with Veles, as has been said, was in the hands of the enemy.
This being the situation, it was clear that the only way for the Serbs to force their way through to join the Allies was to abandon Old Serbia and then, concentrating in the plain of Kossovo, to try to break through the enemy forces now posted from Katchanik along the Karadagh to Konculj, so as to reach Uskub and Veles behind them. To do this as many troops as possible were withdrawn from the north, those in the valleys of the Southern and Western Morava being the first to be recalled. This retirement, though harassed by energetic pressure of the enemy from the north and from the direction of Leskovec to the east, was rapidly and safely carried out, and on November 4th the push for Uskub began.
For this forlorn hope of an offensive the Serbs disposed of five infantry divisions, one cavalry division and two strong "detachments," but they were much outnumbered by the Bulgars facing them. The latter, threatened by this attack on their flank, delayed their advance towards Monastir down the Babouna pass, where for a month past 5,000 Serbs, with practically no guns and little food, had been holding up four times their number of the enemy,---and troops were even called back up the Babouna to meet the attack on Katchanik.
From November 4th-8th, in the battle of Katchanik, the Serbs were attacking the enemy on Velika Planina and Mount Jegovatz, the crest of which they captured. But their troops were tired out, they were short of mountain guns and the enemy was pressing from the north towards Prepolatz and Prishtina. It became clear that there would not be time to force a way through to Uskub before the communication of the troops at Katchanik broke down. So on November 8th the attack was called off, and the wearied Serbian Army, with its artillery ammunition exhausted, was withdrawn to the left bank of the Sitnitza river, and there on November 12th the order was finally given for that ghastly retreat to begin across the bitter and inhospitable mountains of Albania, which, for the time at any rate, was the end of the Serbian Army.
But though neither French nor Serbs were strong enough to break through and make a junction at Veles or Uskub there still remained another possibility. At the end of October when the French reached Krivolak there was still that small Serbian force in the narrow and steep defile of the Babouna pass along which the road from Veles runs to Monastir. The flank of this Serbian force was, indeed, threatened by a flying column of the Bulgars which was working round to turn its position by means of a pony track across the mountains to the north, and in the end did oblige it to retreat.
But on October 20th when the French reached Krivolak, there still appeared to the energetic mind of General Sarrail to be a chance worth attempting of striking westwards across country from the Vardar and attacking the left flank of the Bulgar force advancing from Veles on Monastir in the hope of getting into touch with the detachment of the Serbian Army which was resisting in the Babouna pass. It was a daring scheme,---almost reckless perhaps from a strategic point of view,---that this weak force of two divisions with its long and most precarious line of communications should engage itself with a much more numerous and victoriously advancing enemy, and General Sarrail was constantly being cautioned by the French Government not only of his danger of being cut off and surrounded by the Bulgars, but also of the vaguer, and consequently even more disturbing, possibility of being attacked from the rear by the Greeks, who controlled the first fifty miles of his railway communications, and were by this time so frankly unfriendly that Sarrail was driven to the length of establishing a great supply depot at Guevgheli, just across the Serbian frontier, for no other reason than that he could not be certain of the security of his base area further south. In fact, one needs only to glance at the map to realise the difficulty of the operation which the French now began to attempt. From their railhead at Krivolak on the Vardar bank to the Babouna pass where the Serbs were standing on the defensive is a distance of thirty miles across country, but that distance conveys small idea of the obstacles with which it was filled. After securing the railhead at Krivolak by establishing a strong outpost on the opposite bank of the Vardar, the French troops destined to attempt the junction with the Serbs had to turn their backs upon the railway and march by the single, primitive, up-and-down road that runs south-westwards, through Negotin and Kavadar, to where the long wooden bridge of Vozarci crossed the swift and deep Cerna river, a tributary stream which here flows north-eastwards to join the Vardar. The road of their advance continued for four miles further beyond the Cerna, up the valley of the Rajek, a mountain torrent that falls into it; then they had to cross the Rajek by another wooden bridge and turn due northward along the left bank of the Cerna, where they climbed up into the outer fringe of the mountains that form the eastern wall of the Babouna pass. And here at length they found themselves in face of the entrenched positions of the left wing of the Bulgarian Army that was pushing its way down the road from Veles to Monastir.
A single-track railway a hundred miles long, threatened by open enemies on the greater part of its length and exposed to secret enemies on the rest, followed by eighteen or twenty miles of a bad road which included two wooden bridges across formidable rivers,---such was their sole line of supply and their sole line of retreat. Under these conditions was the French advance westwards from the Vardar through Kavadar begun.
The first thing for the French to do after their arrival on October 20th at Krivolak was to cross the river and secure the commanding height of Kara-Hodjali on the other side, from which, if the enemy had been allowed to establish artillery there, he could have shelled the whole of the "Kavadar triangle," the sort of peninsula between the converging Vardar and Cerna rivers across which lay the line of advance towards the Babouna.
No sooner did General Leblois, commanding the 57th Division, arrive at Krivolak on October 27th, than he gave orders for this provision of Kara-Hodjali to be occupied as a northerly bastion to the new French area of operations on the right bank of the Vardar. There is no bridge across the river here, and the Vardar, always a swift stream, was carrying a strong head of flood-water, but there was time for no delay, since already Bulgar cavalry scouts had been seen dotting the crest of the black, forbidding mountain. So a leaky Turkish fishing-punt was found, and a whole French regiment with a mountain-battery were taken across in it, a dozen at a time, the crazy ferry-boat never ceasing its journeys for a day and a night. Meanwhile a company of Irish pioneers was brought up from Salonica to build a floating bridge.
But the Bulgar General realised, though late, the importance of Kara-Hodjali as a menace to the new French position south of Krivolak, and on October 30th he attacked it in force, supported by 5-inch guns. The attack was beaten off with heavy loss, though the Bulgarian infantry got close enough to the French trenches for the defenders to use their hand grenades. On November 2nd and 3rd renewed attempts to outflank Kara-Hodjali were repulsed, and after that the Bulgars contented themselves with digging in to face the French. Railhead in its exposed position at Krivolak was never safe from a few shells at long range, but was protected from actual attack so long as the French continued to hold Kara-Hodjali, or Kara-Rosalie, as the French soldiers called it, giving it the nickname of their blood-reddened bayonets from the hand-to-hand fighting that took place there.
It was a mountain even less attractive than the average stony, barren, treeless Macedonian height, for its ravines were filled with skulls and bones from the last Balkan Wars,---whitened relics of which the story, though but three years old, was already lost except in the archives of some General Staff,---a grim reminder of the ephemeral motives for which war demands the surrender of men's lives.
But before the French abandoned Kara-Hodjali a month later they had added considerably to its collection of human remains by the Bulgarian corpses they scattered on its slopes, for the Bulgars moved always in column and attacked in mass-formation, as a result of which they lost heavily. But the French also had meanwhile the opportunity of realising the devastating effects of their own 75 min. guns, since the batteries which the Bulgars used against them were some which they had bought from Creusot before the war. The enemy's shells, however, varied much in quality, Turkish ammunition and even practice shells being sometimes used. The Bulgars had no aeroplanes at this time, though a few German machines showed themselves over the French and British by Strumnitza. The Bulgar gunners, on the other hand, always stopped firing when an Allied airman appeared.
Railhead being thus secured, the main body of the French turned westwards to attack the left flank and rear of the Bulgars operating against the Babouna pass. By this time the 57th Division had established its headquarters at Negotin, and the 122nd at Kavadar.
A dreary place was this "Kavadar triangle,"---almost treeless; the once fertile fields deserted; the rare villages in ruins, burnt by the comitadji bands which used to ravage the Balkans in the interests of conflicting national propaganda. The wretched population was the usual mixture of Bulgarian, Serb and Mussulman, but with each section accustomed to change their racial and religious labels under the application of terrorism. Order was kept among them with a strong hand by an ex-comitadji named Babounski, who made short work of doubtful characters, hanging them or "sending them down to Salonica," as he euphemistically termed it, which meant a summary execution on the banks of the Vardar, after which the body was thrown into the stream. Mud, filth, half-wild dogs were the most conspicuous features of the countryside. No supplies of any kind could be drawn from a region whose resources even in the way of fuel were limited to cakes of bullock dung, dried by being stuck onto the decaying walls.
On November 5th news was received that the Serbs had been driven back halfway down the Babouna pass to Mukos. Time pressed; that same day the first French troops were ordered to cross the Cerna, and make a strong reconnaissance of the slopes of Mount Archangel, the strongest point of the Bulgars' left flank, and held by the 3rd Macedonian Regiment reinforced by the 49th and 53rd and probably by one other.
For the next fortnight., there was constant and desperate fighting along a front of ten miles on the slopes on this left bank of the Cerna. The dull rumble of the Bulgarian guns shelling the Serbs in the Mukos defile, only ten miles away in a direct line, came rolling through the mountains to the ears of the French, as they tramped across the long wooden trestle bridge over the Cerna at Vozarci. The whole question was,---Could the French fight their way through in time to join these Serbs before the latter, vastly outnumbered, were driven back into the Prilep plain behind them towards Monastir? The hope that this might be done proved vain, through sheer lack of numbers on the part of both the Allies. But not for want of fierce fighting during the fortnight from November 5th-19th. One French regiment, indeed, was continuously in action for nine days. On November 10th the village of Cicevo, on the slopes of Mount Archangel, was carried with a rush by an encircling attack delivered by a French infantry regiment. Battalion by battalion, as French troops arrived up the railway line, they were hurried across the Kavadar triangle to the other bank of the Cerna, and thrown into the fighting.
On the thirteenth and fourteenth the conflict reached its greatest violence. Even these French divisions coming straight from the Western front had never heard such violent rifle and artillery fire as during those two sternly contested days. As for the Bulgars, prisoners who had fought in the last two Balkan Wars, said that they had never realised before how terrible a battle could be. But by this time the offensive had passed to the enemy. The French had exhausted their strength, they had failed to carry Mount Archangel, and on the evening of the 13th the Chasseurs à pied evacuated Cicevo. which they had won.
The French, though unable to break through the Bulgars to join the Serbs, nevertheless proved formidable in defence. At one point the Bulgars following them down the slopes of Mount Archangel got within twenty yards of the trenches held by the Chasseurs. Then with a fierce yell and cries of "The knife!" they rose to their feet to charge. But the Chasseurs had made steps of earth ready to get quickly over their parapet, and in a second they, too, were out of their trench, and rushing forward to meet the enemy with the bayonet. The suddenness of this counter-movement took the Bulgars by surprise; they hesitated an instant, then broke and ran. "If we had only had one fresh brigade then," sighed an officer who was there, "we might have been at Veles that night."
The Bulgars made persistent attempts to work round the left flank of the French and cut them off from the Vozarci bridge. If they had succeeded in this, they would have caught in a trap all the French troops who had crossed the Cerna, rolling them up against the unfordable river in their rear. Failing in these attempts, however, their attack lost much of its vigour, and they seemed content with having checked the French push towards joining the Serbs. The French losses were not very great, though the proportion of officer casualties was high, but the Bulgars left 3,500 dead on the ground after the fighting on Mount Archangel alone.
The French were hopelessly outnumbered, the Bulgars having a superiority of five to two. By the end of the second week of November, two and a half Bulgarian divisions were facing the two weak French divisions on the Cerna front, and a Bulgar division counts no less than 25,000 men. It was believed, in fact, that the whole of the Bulgarian First Army, about 125,000 men, was spread along the Veles-Prilep road, and available to be used against the 25,000 French on the Cerna, and the 5,000 Serbs who were gradually being pushed down the Babouna pass. So the attempt to join the Serbs had failed; it had broken against the Bulgar positions on Mount Archangel. All that was now left to do was to retreat upon Salonica, leaving the Serbs to their fate. For the French to stay where they were, at the end of so difficult a line of communications, threatened by the Bulgars, and seeming very likely also to be attacked by the Greeks, was clearly impossible. Indeed, it looked by no means sure in the third week of November that the French would be able to extricate themselves from their contact with the enemy by the one difficult route open to them without considerable loss.
It was impossible to withdraw troops, ammunition and material in a single movement. If that had been attempted, the enemy would have followed up and forced the French to stand and fight on ground not of their own choosing. The retirement was accordingly carried out by stages. An appearance of activity was kept up at the front, while a series of strong entrenched positions was prepared at intervals down the Vardar. Each of these "bridgeheads," as they are technically called, was held and defended by a section of the French force, while the rest were being withdrawn to the shelter of the next one. It was a retreat by echelon. These defensive positions, thus held in turn to guard the rear of the retreating army were:
(1) Defile of Demir Kapu.
(2) The heights of Gradec.
(3) Bojimia river---Mirovca.
(4) Near Guevgheli.
(5) Smol, (north-west of Ardzan Lake).
The force which General Sarrail. had to bring out of Serbia in this difficult manner was two divisions strong. It must be remembered how awkwardly the French troops on the Cerna were situated with regard to getting back to their railhead at Krivolak. This has already been explained. And when that was accomplished, even worse lay ahead. From Krivolak down to Salonica there was no road possible for wheeled traffic at all. The only means of communication was the single line of railway, and a few extremely bad, very steep and rough tracks which could be used by men on foot and by pack-animals only. To add to these difficulties, it was now bitterly cold, with 20° of frost, and the snow lying thick.
The first thing to be done was to evacuate the large depot of supplies and munitions which had been built up at Krivolak. There had been accumulated here, in view of the possibility of joining up with the Serbs, eight days' supply of food for the two divisions and 1,000 rounds per gun. To facilitate the feeding of the Army, Gradsko, the next station north of Krivolak, had also by this time been occupied, but on the approach of the Bulgars was evacuated, because its retention was not considered worth the casualties that its defence would have entailed. Owing to the absence of roads, all the carts, motor-lorries and other material, wheeled and stationary, used in the Kavadar triangle, had to be brought down from Krivolak by train. When this had been done, and the prepared defensive position at Demir Kapu had been occupied by troops drawn from the 156th Division at Strumnitza, the retirement of the troops fighting the Bulgars beyond the Cerna could begin. By November 29th they were all back on the right bank of that river, blowing up the bridge at Vozarci behind them.
All that day the artillery continued a violent bombardment of the Bulgar, positions in the hills beyond the Cerna, and during the night following the whole French force fell back on Krivolak and entrained, leaving only small rearguards which followed as soon as the Krivolak railliead was cleared. This first stage of the retreat was carried out with a loss of only about twenty men. The Bulgars were slow, as they usually are, in grasping the new situation, and the whole of the two divisions got safely back behind the fortified position of Demir Kapu. But when the Bulgars did come on, they followed up the retirement with stubborn persistency. I had a good account of their advance about six weeks later from a Bulgarian corporal born of Armenian parents at Rustchuk, who deserted later. He had been engaged in a fight for the possession of the Rajec bridge beyond the Cerna, which I had witnessed from the French side on November 19th. The bridge across the Cerna at Vozarci having been blown up, he told me, the Bulgars first tried to throw a temporary pontoon bridge across, but the swift current carried it away, so the Bulgarians actually crossed the Cerna by wading, though the rapid stream ran breast-high, and it was snowing heavily at the time. They even forded it by night, each man holding his rifle above his head with one hand, and gripping the shoulder of his neighbour with the other. Out of the regiment to which this deserter belonged twenty men were swept away and drowned that night in the fast-flowing, icy-cold water. The strength of the force that followed up the French, he, as a simple non-commissioned officer, did not know, but he believed that there were three Bulgarian divisions available which had been opposing the French beyond the Cerna. They found the Kavadar triangle an empty waste of snow and slush, for the French had made good their retreat to Demir Kapu. The Bulgars, to whom the rigours of a Balkan winter caused less suffering than to their opponents, tramped relentlessly after them. From the Cerna to Demir Kapu they were thirty-six hours on the march without sleep and without rations. After their soaking in the bitter Cerna their officers no doubt feared frostbite among the troops, were they to halt for long. The men begged bread in the wretched half-depopulated villages through which they passed. And, if it was not given immediately, they took it together with anything else portable that seemed worth looting.
The Bulgarian guns could not, owing to the state of the primitive road, keep up with this rate of march, and the French artillery posted on the Demir Kapu position, accordingly caused the enemy considerable loss when they reached it. A violent infantry attack was nevertheless made on the Demir Kapu trenches, but the French beat it off, and gave time for their main body to get back, though in great apprehension of being outflanked by a Bulgarian movement through the mountains, into the next "watertight compartment" at Gradec, and so to Strumnitza Station. The Bulgars, following on, next attacked the Gradec position, the defence of which cost the French 100 men. The two French divisions which had been upcountry were now in the area occupied by the 156th Division, part of which withdrew across the Bojimia river, where it took up a defensive position, in relation with another fortified "bridgehead" at Mirovca on the right bank of the Vardar. But as the French thus steadily fell back, the conditions of their retreat, desperately hard as they were already rendered by the deep snow, the bitter cold, the fog and the unspeakable mud and slush, became more difficult in proportion as the numbers of the retiring force were augmented through its being withdrawn upon itself. For the available routes remained limited to the railway and to adjacent tracks such as would be considered impossible in Europe. Motor-cars sank to the axles and could only make progress at all with the aid of constant tows from double teams of bullocks, fortunately plentiful in the country. Limbers and waggons were bogged in every dip of the ground, and the mules harnessed to them would often grow fractious and refuse to continue the weary struggle. So bad were the conditions that the 57th Division took a whole day to cover four miles. The men, sinking ankle-deep in mud at every step, were dead-tired, staggering under the weight of their packs, wet to the skin, starved with cold and hunger; they had been marching and fighting for days in the snow over rough, steep paths high up the rocky side of the Vardar gorge where a slip meant death, often sleeping such sleep as they could get shelterless in the open. They were covered with lice. For a fortnight they had not had their boots off or washed even their faces. Like all armies of spirit they were disheartened by the fact that they were retreating, although it was a retirement that carried with it no disgrace. Nor were the inhabitants of some of the villages they passed through friendly in their reception. Long experience of wars,---regular and irregular,---has filled the population of the Balkans with terror and dread of armies on the march. Moreover the Turkish and Bulgarian sections of the population of Macedonia were naturally hostile to their countries' retreating enemies. In more than one village straggling French soldiers were found murdered with their eyes and tongues torn out by the frenzied women of the place.
And now Strumnitza Station, one of the most important depots on the line, with its accumulated heaps of supplies and ammunition, its strings of limbers, its parks of carts and waggons of every kind requisitioned in the country, had to be evacuated during the night, while all troops were pushed on south of the new entrenched position astride the Vardar from Mirovca to the Bojimia valley. In front of this position the Vardar leaves its mountain ravine and enters upon a flatter tract of country, so that the ground became more favourable for the pursuing enemy's attacks. Violent fighting took place here, as the Bulgars attempted to turn the flanks of this line of defence, while the French were improvising yet another position near Ghevgheli, to protect the evacuation of the large depot of stores and Serbian supplies which had been collected there, because of the apparent likelihood of the interference by the Greeks with the railway to Salonica further south.
There was a large military hospital too, at Guevgheli, full of wounded, and with the limited rolling-stock which was all that the Greeks could be persuaded to provide it seemed very doubtful whether all these men and material could be got away in time. Guevgheli railway-bridge, one of the principal engineering works on the line from Salonica to Nish, was mined ready to be blown up just as the ruined one alongside it had been blown up in the Balkan War three years before. Unceasingly the plodding files of men passed over, hustling along with them many of the little country donkeys which they had picked up on the retreat to carry cooking-pots and part of their heavy packs. The donkeys sometimes jibbed at the sight of the rushing stream below. When this happened there was no time either to persuade or to drive them. The way must not be blocked for a moment. Over into the river twenty feet down, with a splash and a squeal, donkey, kit and all had to go and be swept away by the remorseless Vardar. There were strings of rickety carts half-a-mile long; here a convoy of ambulance waggons; there a train of artillery limbers. Staff cars bumped violently over the harder sections of the road or ploughed with boiling radiators through the swampy parts, throwing out fountains of mud on both sides. Flocks of sheep and goats straggled along, being saved from the Bulgar. There were the incessant blocks that always occur when the multitudinous traffic of an army is thus congested. Sometimes, in the crossing of a swollen stream, horses and carts would sink hopelessly into a patch of bottomless mud; the load would have to be hurriedly transferred to another a ready overburdened waggon and the struggling team abandoned to gradual suffocation unless a kindly driver shot them before going on. Every one was wet, weary, thoroughly "fed up." Yet the French soldier, thanks perhaps to his safety-valve of picturesque and bloodcurdling oaths, kept up his spirits, as he usually does on every occasion, however miserable, and seized on the smallest excuse for a laugh, though it were only at his own misfortunes.
The difficulties of the retreat were not at all lessened by the fact that the working of the two railways which brought the Allies down from the Greek frontier was in the hands of Greek officials, thanks to which a train ran off the line at a critical moment and considerably hampered our use of the railway. No one was hurt, which was a suspicious circumstance, and the event furthermore occurred at the same spot as a similar incident in the Balkan War, so that there was some justification for strong suspicion of deliberate obstruction by the Greeks.
On the last night at Guevgheli the scene was one characteristic of the terrors of war. The town had already been set on fire, and the big barracks were blazing. The red light flashed back fitfully from the eddying Vardar. It was raining. The tail-end of the bedraggled procession of the retreating army was still defiling across the river and on into the mire and the black night beyond. Behind it the rifles and machineguns of the rearguard rattled without pause. The Bulgarian deserter with whom I later had several conversations was in the forefront of the pursuit and described it to me graphically. "The French guns," he said, "did great damage to the Bulgars at Guevgheli. For our own artillery was following on behind, much delayed by the snow. My regiment was advancing in column, not knowing that the French were so near, when their batteries suddenly opened fire. We should all have been killed if we had not been partly hidden from the French gunners by the mulberry trees at the side of the road. which screened us. At Guevgheli we were in so bad a way that even our officers were ready to order a retirement, and when we saw that the French were retreating still further across the Greek frontier we were so astonished that at first we thought it was a ruse. The rifle and machine-gun fire of the French was very deadly for us, too," he said. "We could see the French mitrailleuses in the open and our officers were discussing the chances of rushing them, but they lacked confidence when it came to the point. The fight lasted five hours, and only finished after dark. When at last we advanced beyond Guevgheli a general order was given that we were to halt at the Greek frontier. At this we were overjoyed and said, 'The war is over.'
"Five or six days passed so, and then we began to talk about Salonica. The rumour was that we were waiting for German reinforcements who were to go on and take Salonica and then hand it over to the Bulgarians. But when a whole fortnight had passed and we were still in billets at Gurincet, near Guevgheli. often bombed by French aeroplanes, and on very short rations,---half-a-pound of bread a day and very little meat---we began to grumble and say, 'Where are the Germans?' Food got shorter and shorter. The soldiers stole each other's bread and so fighting began. Bread was as precious as diamonds. Those that were wise ate their ration directly they got it, or they would be attacked and have it taken from them. At last my regiment was ordered to furnish the frontier-guard, and I, as a corporal, went out on rounds and so got a chance of slipping away."
MULES AND MOUNTAINS-THE COMMONEST FEATURES OF A BALKAN LANDSCAPE.
When the last train had cleared Guevgheli of its wounded and stores, the order was given to the French to retire across the Greek frontier, and under the final protection of a mixed brigade at Smol, the exhausted troops back from the Cerna completed their arduous but successful issue from so many and great dangers, and were withdrawn by railway and by all available tracks to what is now the line of defences of Salonica. Meanwhile the 156th Division on the left bank of the Vardar had been heavily engaged under much the same conditions as those described in the account which follows in the next chapter of the retreat of the l0th Division, and had fallen back by a parallel route.
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