THE expulsion of the German, Austrian, Bulgarian and Turkish consuls from our midst at Salonica was the first step that the Allies took which emphasised the inevitable conflict of authority in the town. Up till then the situation had really been Gilbertian. Here we were at war with all these four states, the Salonica Army being actually engaged with three of them, while at the base and headquarters of that army the official diplomatic representatives of the enemy countries were still going about freely and openly,---not organising a spy system against us, for all that had been done long before,---but supervising it, meeting every day, exchanging information, sending off reports in code, posting letters by the train which ran daily to Constantinople, sitting down at lunch and dinner in crowded restaurants at the same table with French or British officers who never imagined for a moment that the unobtrusive civilian in a black coat at their elbow was the Bulgarian consul, perfectly acquainted with their language, and at the head of an organisation which was working night and day with the sole object of their personal destruction and national undoing. The Bulgarian consul, M. Nedkoff, was the most active and intelligent of the four enemy consuls. I had known him personally in earlier years; in fact, I remember his drinking the health of King George with sincere enthusiasm on Coronation Day, 1910, when both he and I were the guests of the British consul in Monastir at a dinner given in honour of the event.
Some were in favour from the first of arresting these consuls, but General Sarrail's decision was to respect their extra-territorial rights which they must be considered to possess as consuls on neutral soil, unless and until they could be proved to be carrying on espionage. But that was just the difficulty. The Greek police protected them; it was impossible to catch them in the act. The Allied secret service agents were shadowed by Greek detectives who warned the consuls of danger. Yet there was a moral certainty that the enemy consuls were not only carrying on espionage but also concealing stocks of bombs and arms.
At last, however, the Germans took hostile action against Salonica,---not on the camps around but against the town itself. They sent their aeroplanes to bomb it, thereby showing that they at least did not consider it neutral territory. Upon this Sarrail at once decided to expel the enemy consuls, and in the afternoon of the day of the aeroplanes' visit they were arrested with all their families and staffs and deported. Search of the consulates, which some months later were taken over for General Staff purposes, confirmed to the full the suspicions that had centred round them.
The seizing of the Greek forts of Karaburnu, which commanded the entrance to the harbour of Salonica, was the second act by which circumstances forced the Allies to tighten their grip on the town which was their base.
In December, 1915, when M. Pallis came from Athens to see General Sarrail, with the so-called mission of dissipating misunderstandings between the Greek Government and the Allies, Sarrail mentioned that the naval command at Salonica insisted that the question of the forts of Karaburnu should be examined, as they were in a position to do much harm to the Allied Fleet and cut off the town from the sea. Pallis promised on behalf of King Constantine that whatever happened the forts of Karaburnu should not fire,---"whatever," though unexpressed, meaning of course the eventuality of an overwhelming enemy attack obliging the Allies to evacuate the Balkans and re-embark at Salonica. The matter was left at that. But the practical situation was so little improved by this vague pledge that at length General Sarrail was informed that the French Minister of Marine had ordered the French naval forces at Salonica to occupy Karaburnu.
The Allied naval commanders consulted together about this and decided that although of course the ships could, in the event of resistance, shell the forts, it would be more convenient for the purposes of permanently occupying them that the army should furnish a contingent of the garrison. The seizure of the forts was, indeed, an operation which needed careful preparation, for our naval captive balloon in H.M.S. "Canning" had been up every day taking photographs which clearly showed that the Greeks were busy building new gun-emplacements. We later found that they had also laid in a stock of armour-piercing shells of recent pattern.
Admiral Gaucher, the French Admiral commanding in the Eastern Mediterranean, accordingly got into touch with General Sarrail, and it was arranged to make a joint operation of it, the whole of the Allied fleets being represented, the Italian "Piemonte" and the Russian "Askold," then at Salonica, taking part as well as French and English ships, the latter also landing marines.
The seizure of the forts was made on the morning of January 28, 1916. It was very thoroughly arranged by the French, and all precautions for overcoming resistance were taken. The delicacy of the operation lay in the fact that at that time our relations with the Greeks were very near the breaking-point, and it would have needed little more than a fight at Karaburnu for us to have had the whole Greek Army on top of us.
Three thousand French troops were the main force employed. They marched round behind Salonica towards Karaburnu Point, on the east side of the Gulf, coming fifty miles in two days. At 10.30 P.M. on the night before the forts were to be occupied, they cut the telephone wires connecting them with the Greek garrison and headquarters at Salonica. At 7 A.M. on January 28th, our contingent of 100 marines landed from H.M.S. "Albion" and reported to Colonel Curie, the French officer who was in command of the whole operation. They were placed on the left wing of the attacking party. Several English battalions were further back, in reserve for eventualities, but were kept in ignorance of what was going on, being led to their positions by Staff officers and after remaining there two days were marched back to camp again.
The forts were really rather shore-batteries than forts properly so-called. Their normal garrison was 250 men. There were two 8.4-inch guns in the main battery, which had been inherited from the Turks, and of which the "strips" on the sights with Turkish numerals had not even been replaced. Two 6-inch Armstrong guns and some German field-guns formed the rest of the armament.
The French troops with the party of British marines then advanced on the forts, making occasional halts of about twenty minutes. Each. time this happened the French threw up "scrapes" of earth in front of them, and when they got to within 2,500 yards of the forts the mountain-guns were put together and dug in too. There was a screen of cavalry behind, cutting off all connection with Salonica, and three Farman aeroplanes overhead. No chances were taken, for the stake was great. We were really in a weak position at Salonica, for all our apparent strength; King Constantine was believed to be even eager for a pretext to be driven into hostilities against us, and if a fight with the Greeks had started, supported as it would have been very quickly by German detachments rushed down the railway, we should have been in an unpleasant situation, with our backs to the sea and a hostile and treacherous population all around us.
When the Allied force got near Karaburnu Point, the English marines were ordered to go on ahead and occupy Tuzla Fort, an outlying work about three miles beyond the others. They set out and had gone some way when they met a detachment of Greek soldiers under a sergeant who at once halted his men and gave the order, "Fix bayonets!" The English continued to advance with sloped arms and without bayonets fixed, when the Greek N.C.O. suddenly produced an automatic pistol and levelled it at the head of the marine captain in command of the party. On this, the marines halted and the intelligence officer of the "Albion," who had been brought up in Turkey and spoke Greek excellently, opened a parley. He said: "We have come to occupy the fort. It's quite all right. Everything has been fixed up by this time with the Greek C.O. at Karaburnu."
The N.C.O., on this, said that he would let them pass if they would give him time to send a messenger back to TuzIa to ring up Karaburnu. The messenger was sent, but it afterwards transpired that he took a recommendation to the Greek officer there to serve out ball-cartridges and prepare to defend the fort.
Our men continued to advance along the barren coast-line, and when they reached TuzIa found some of the garrison lining a breastwork in front of the fort and the rest in the windows of the red-brick building used as a barracks. The subaltern in command came out to parley. He said that his C.O. had gone to Salonica on forty-eight hours' leave. He refused to let the marines enter, so the English captain sent back to the French to say that he was held up. The garrison of the fort was only seventy strong, but they were behind cover and in any case the possible consequences of a fight were so serious that it had to be avoided except as a last extremity. A French officer soon arrived, and he, together with the captain of marines, again addressed the young subaltern. You must surrender to superior force," they said.
If you resist, the fleet has orders directly it hears the sound of firing to shell every strategic point in Salonica." (This was true; the battleships and monitors had their guns ready trained on the barracks and public buildings.) This argument was strong enough, and the Greek subaltern, who had throughout the parley been at a white heat of indignation, opened the gates of the fort. He explained that he had taken part in the first Balkan War, and had helped to turn the Turks out of these very forts, "And now you've turned us out," he added despondently.
Meanwhile the French had occupied the other forts and the whole of the dangerous position of Karaburnu was in our hands before the Greek headquarters in Salonica knew that anything was even projected.
When our men had installed themselves in the captured fort there was an old Turk who used to come to sell vegetables to them, whose white beard would shake with laughter as he handed them over the gate. The interpreter asked him what he was laughing at. "Ah, it is such a pleasure," said the old man, "to see the English instead of the Greeks where my brothers the Turks used to be."
So things went on, in an atmosphere of considerable strain, although the French were giving the Greeks the use of twenty motor-lorries daily to supply Seres and other places up-country with food, at an expense to themselves of £50 per day. Gratitude, however, was not a conspicuous feature of the temperament of the people with whom we had to deal. It was remarkable how instinctively. and unanimously, the soldiers of the different Allied armies,--as heterogeneous a collection as possible of characters, tastes and standards of conduct,---agreed in detesting the Greek at this time.
Thousands of Greeks, men, women and children, have been taken into the service of the British Army as labourers and muleteers. The stone-breaking for the ceaseless repair of those new and hard-used roads with which we have laced the desert of Macedonia is all done by civilian labour, paid from three to seven francs a day (the higher rate for foremen), fed and housed in large camps under British officers who speak the local tongues. Every mile or two as you drive you will find the road lined on both sides with a black fringe of these peasants, refugees or local villagers,---of all the races of the Balkans, Serb, Turkish, Bulgar (though of Greek allegiance), the mixed race that calls itself "Macedonian," Kutzo-Vlach, and Greek. Full-trousered old grannies with grey hair, hammering industriously away, sit alongside youngsters with chubby (and very dirty) bare feet, chipping just as vigorously. The men and the boys,---harder-working boys than I have seen anywhere,---do the heavier wheelbarrow work, and all of them are under the benign but alert control of an English sergeant whose acquaintance with Balkan tongues ends at "Hidey,"---a general word of incitement,---but who gives orders by means of the phrase, "Hi, Johnny," followed by expressive pantomime.
"Johnny" was the term used from the first by the British soldier as the only way of addressing an inhabitant of Macedonia, and the population of the Balkans, imitative as parrots, have responded by adopting it on their part for us. "Shine, Jawhnnie?" screech the Salonica shoeblacks as you walk the muddy streets, hammering their boxes with the backs of their brushes. "Penny, Jawhnnie," whine the gypsy brats, running along at your elbow and making disconcerting efforts to kiss the skirt of your coat. "Finish, Johnny," is a phrase likely to be a permament addition to the vocabulary of the Balkans for expressing the simple idea that it conveys.
Aboriginal though the workers of the road-gangs look in their rough and generally filthy national dress, they sometimes give you a surprise. On a rough hillroad in a lonely region, where I had stopped with a boiling radiator, a black, rough-coated fellow with the cowl of his picturesque frieze jerkin drawn over his head,---a sort of foreman of the gang at work there,---came and stood by the car. "Isn't that a fine type of savage? " I said casually to my companion. The next remark to be made came in fluent trans-Atlantic English from the object of this faint praise of mine. "Guess you wahnt some wahter?" he said. "I'll send one my fellers fetch you some." I started in some little confusion. "Where did you learn English? " I asked, though the question was needless.
"Buffalo, five year," he jerked in reply. "Ye-es, I'd like fine get back there, too. This country no dam use, anyhow. No money. Can't get away, though, now."
They all say they want to get back to America, as a matter of fact. But the homing instinct in the inhabitant of the Balkans, and particularly the Greek, is so strong that he will leave the new-found civilisation of street-cars and telephones and soda-fountains and cinemas as soon as he has saved a little money, and return again to his remote, squalid, muddy, tumble-down village, where nothing but the dreary monotony of a peasant's life on the reluctant soil awaits him.
The Greek Muleteer Corps that we enlisted was at first dressed in khaki uniform, with only a tin badge on the arm as a distinguishing mark, and one used to have the shock of meeting what seemed to be the most rapscallion, untidy mob of English drivers you had ever set eyes on. Later on, however, the Muleteer Corps dress was changed to black tunics and, slouch hats. They get three drachmas (2s. 6d.) a day all found. They are not so good as English drivers, of course, but transport is such an immense problem in the Balkans that we had to have more drivers from somewhere, and Greek labour was the only solution. It is always undesirable, of course, to use aliens in the zone of an army in the field, and on a few occasions some of these people have been found carrying letters with spy-reports for the enemy, which they were to hide in pre-arranged places to be fetched by other agents, but we have never had enough men in the Balkans to do anything big as it is, and we should have had fewer combatants still if we had had to find drivers for all the horse and mule transport that we use.
Rupel is a black word with our Army in the Balkans. When the Bulgars suddenly advanced and took over from the Greeks (by previous secret arrangement) the fort that commands the Struma valley, they threw a five-barred gate across the only way by which we might later on have been able to advance into Bulgaria. The Bulgars stopped the gap we might have gone through. They put themselves across the path of any advance northward, and on the flank of any advance eastward. Since then the wall of strong positions over against us has been complete, and to achieve anything on what later became the British sector of the front it was made practically inevitable that we should first attack the strong position of Rupel.
Why did not the French, whose troops were on the Struma at the time, seize and hold Fort Rupel before the Bulgars got there! It is a question that has been often asked. Certainly we had plenty of reasons to expect that they would advance on the fort. What restrained the French General Staff from occupying it, however, was that, with the limited forces which General Sarrail had at his disposition, it would only have been possible to send a regiment (say 2,000 men) to hold it and the mouth of the defile which it protected. This would not have prevented the Bulgars from coming down in force, and the destruction or the capture of the isolated garrison thrust far out in advance of the main Allied Army would have been a defeat for us and an injury to our cause.
It was on the morning of May 26th that the Bulgarian force sent to seize Rupel appeared in the valley of the Struma. It was, at first, reported as one brigade strong, then as one division. The infantry of the force seems to have consisted of three whole regiments and part of another, and there was also artillery, three companies of German sappers, and some Uhlans. The enemy came in three columns, of which the centre one moved on Rupel. The fort had a Greek garrison, of course, the Greek Army being still in occupation of Seres and Demir Hissar, and as the Bulgars approached the Greeks fired a few shells at them,---a pro forma resistance evidently,---to which the Bulgars made no reply, but instead sent at noon a white flag to demand the surrender of the fort. The officer in command said that he could not give it up without orders from Athens, so a delay was granted for these to be obtained, and at 2.30 P.M. the telegraphic order came that the Greek garrison was to evacuate the fort and withdraw to Demir Hissar. So the Greek flag was hauled down and the Bulgarian one hoisted. The Bulgars and Germans signed an inventory of the contents of the fort and told General Bayeras that they only wanted it for defensive purposes, to stop an Allied move northwards. A telegram to the Athens Government from General Bayeras, who commanded the 6th Greek Division at Seres, which came to the knowledge of the French General Staff, goes far to confirm the idea that Rupel was surrendered by King Constantine to his friends and our enemies by deliberate previous collusion. "The Germans and Bulgars arrived at Demir Hissar station this morning to occupy it," telegraphed the General a day or two later. "I told them that I could not hand over the station without previous reference to you, because the transference of Demir Hissar station was not comprised in the treaty."
Only a year later, in July, 1917, did it become known, from the disclosures made by the re-established Venizelist Government in Athens, that immediately before handing over Fort Rupel to the Germans and their allies, King Constantine's Government had obtained (as the price of it) a loan of £3,000,000 from the German Government, while at the same moment, with characteristic duplicity, it was trying to avail itself of the long-suffering benevolence of the Allies to get another loan of £5,000,000 out of them.
Demir Hissar station was occupied immediately after Rupel, treaty or no treaty, and the Bulgarians, crossing the Greek frontier at other points, waited only until they were ready to make a simultaneous push on the other flank of the Allied front before carrying the zone of their occupation down to Kavalla, so that it enclosed our positions in a great arc. At Kavalla part of the garrison under Colonel Hatzopoulo went over to the side which had always had their sympathies and were carried off to Berlin for "training." Colonel Christodoulo, who had brought down a contingent of anti-Bulgar Greeks from Seres, got across to Thasos island and so back to Salonica, where he was received by the population with hero-worship, and later became the first General of the Venizelist forces. Salonica, as a part of New Greece, was indeed much perturbed by the invasion of the Struma valley by the Bulgars. Her townspeople remembered by what precarious means Salonica had become Greek, and they knew that the Bulgars aimed, and aim still, definitely and ardently, at recapturing the coveted port in which their troops temporarily set foot during the first Balkan War. There was a large public meeting of protest against the action of the Greek Government, held in Salonica, which the Royalist municipal authorities tried in vain to prevent, and from that time a feeling of resentment and apprehension grew among the townspeople and the officers of the garrison until it brought about the "Revolution" of August 30th.
Following upon the Bulgarian descent into Greek territory, and their seizure, by connivance with the Greek Government, of the fort of Rupel, General Sarrail (on June 3rd) seized the control at Salonica of the services of communication and the police force of the town. The step was one essential to our military security. It was the knowledge which reached the French General Staff of the telegram to the Greek Government, proving its complicity in the advance of the Bulgarians against us, that armed Sarrail's hand. His reply to the surrender of Fort Rupel was the proclamation of martial law at Salonica and throughout the zone of the Allied Armies, and the military occupation of the public buildings of the town. With the swiftness and decision which are characteristic of Sarrail's actions, the step was taken on King Constantine's birthday, the preparations for the celebration of which were hastily called off as French patrols with fixed bayonets suddenly appeared before all the public buildings and at every street-corner. The civil administration of the town, except Posts and Telegraphs and police, was left in the hands of the Greeks, but several officials who had been particularly active in their hostility to the Allies, such as Troupakis, the head of the gendarmerie, were expelled.
I will not go into the question of the blockade of the Greek coast by which we brought pressure to bear on Athens. That was a political matter ordered in the first place by the French Minister of Marine, the French Government acting as the delegate of the Allies in the relations of the Entente with Greece. Several times troops were embarked at Salonica to go and lie off Athens ready to land if the Greek Government proved obstinate. Dense secrecy prevailed, of course, about these movements; and rumours of the greatest variety about their destination would spring up in the town like mushrooms after rain.
As a result of these demonstrations, we won some pseudo-concessions from the Royalist Government at Athens. Thus, after June 21st, when we threatened to occupy the capital, the King agreed to demobilise his army,---but he proceeded to arm civilians, who formed bands of irregulars in our rear just as capable of giving us trouble as Greek uniformed troops would have been.
At length, at the end of August, 1916, came the "Salonica Revolution." This was an outbreak of indignation of the Greeks of Macedonia against the simultaneous invasion of still larger tracts of both Eastern and Western Macedonia by the Bulgars, which took place in August, when they occupied Florina and Banitza and advanced to Lake Ostrovo in the west, and pushed on to Kavalla in the east.
By a sudden and rather dramatic upheaval, such as appeals to the Greek temperament, allegiance to King Constantine and the Athens Government was renounced by the majority of the Salonica garrison and population, and the resistance of the Royalist minority was overcome after five minutes' fighting in the dark. The "Revolution" had the distinct advantage for the Allies of clarifying the situation. The transference by the revolutionaries of their adherence from King Constantine to the Entente made General Sarrail's authority supreme in Salonica. And after that there was no more trouble.
A revolutionary feeling had been growing in Macedonia ever since the Greek troops, under orders from the Athens Government, abandoned Fort Rupel and a considerable extent of Greek territory to Bulgarian occupation. The jealous hatred which is the chief feature of the international relations of the Balkan races was stirred to frenzy, and a really bitter feeling of indignation sprang up and grew against the pro-German King and his Ministers; nor was this indignation based solely upon sentiment. Well-founded apprehension had no small part in it. The graves were still fresh of the victims of the Bulgarian massacres at Doxato, in the very district which was now tamely surrendered to them. The hopes of this Greek pro-Ally party which was forming at Salonica had been raised for a moment during the last week of August by the news from Athens that General Dousmanis, Chief of the General Staff, the arch-enemy of the Entente, and principal pro-German plotter, had lost his post, and had been replaced by General Moschopoulos, who had previously commanded the Greek Army Corps at Salonica. But though Moschopoulos had been personally friendly with the Allied Staffs. he was above everything a professional soldier, anxious not to forfeit his post for political reasons, and he quickly came into the orbit of King Constantine and the pro-Germans with whom he had to work in Athens.
And the last circumstance which encouraged the pro-Ally party at Salonica to pass from sympathy to action was the fact of Roumania's entry into the war. It must be remembered,---though the recollection is bitter now,---that it was then expected with confidence that this event marked the beginning of the triumph of our Balkan campaign. Bulgaria would be crushed by a converging attack from both sides. Russia,---mysterious, but with her strength as yet undoubted,---would begin an irresistible offensive at the same time; the Allies at Salonica would march victoriously forward through the Balkans. There would be redistribution of territories and a recasting of frontiers, and from all this, Greece, as the pro-Ally party at Salonica felt, would be shut out and left without a friend in the world.
So on the afternoon of August 30th a proclamation suddenly appeared on the walls of Salonica, addressed to the Greek people and the Greek Army and signed by Colonel Zimbrakakis, the leader of the movement, by Colonel Mazarakis, by the Venizelist deputy from Seres, and half a dozen other lesser personages, over the title, "Committee of National Defence." In brief, what they said was, "The present state of affairs has lasted long enough. The surrender to the Bulgars of Greek forts and territories is a betrayal of the fatherland to foreign interests. The time has come for Greece to place herself by the side of the Powers of the Entente, who have always been her friends." The proclamation urged the Greek soldiers at Salonica to reject all further orders from Athens and to join the Allies in driving the Bulgars off Greek soil.
The news spread through the town that the Greek gendarmerie,---largely Cretans, and therefore Venizelists,---had joined the movement in a body, and that the officers of the three Greek regiments at the barracks were holding a meeting to discuss their attitude. Meanwhile Colonel Zimbrakakis, at the head of the gendarmes, all wearing a blue and white silk armlet, which was to be the badge of the Revolution, and followed by a nondescript crowd of volunteers, hastily equipped with any weapons available, marched through the town to offer his services and theirs to General Sarrail. The side-street in front of French Headquarters was packed with an excited crowd, for the Greek loves political demonstration above any form of entertainment. General Zimbrakakis made an impassioned speech from horseback amid loud cheers of "Zito!" then went in to offer the support of his adherents to the Allied cause for the liberation of Macedonia. Sarrail accepted the proffered services, having already been in the habit of taking Greek volunteers into the French Army since the Bulgars came into Greece. At the same time he issued a general warning that he would intervene if public order were disturbed. Though there was no definite repudiation of loyalty to the Greek Crown, I heard many cries from the crowd of "Down with the King!" and there was a feeling in Salonica that night that trouble was in the air. All British troops were ordered out of the town at dusk, but everything remained quiet until 4.30 next morning.
My own quarters when in Salonica happened to be in a house looking directly onto the broad parade-ground which lies in front of the main barracks, and I was suddenly awakened by a violent rifle-fire very close at hand. One always thinks instinctively of aircraft nowadays when disturbed by explosive noises at night, but this tumult evidently required another explanation. It was a pitch-black night. I went out onto the verandah at the back of the house, to find the whole of the parade-ground flickering with the flashes of rifles. Bullets were flying to every point of the compass. Some hit my house, which was at right angles to the line of fire; others fell in Allied camps a mile away. Then came much whistling and shouting and the firing gradually died down and stopped. But the creaking of wheels and the noise of footsteps and lowered voices told of the presence of a good many men. It was evident that the revolutionary gendarmes were attacking the Royalist infantry and cavalry in their barracks.
Dawn came in an hour or so, and the position grew clearer. Overnight the revolutionary gendarmes had demanded the surrender of the barracks by the cavalry and infantry that occupied them. The officers of the latter refused, and when the time fixed by the revolutionaries for the evacuation of the building arrived the Royalists posted their men along the front wall of the tree-filled garden. At 4.30 A.M., suspicious of the silence and fearing a surprise attack, they sent out from the barracks a reconnoitring patrol of sixty men. These were groping across the parade-ground in the dark when they ran into the gendarmes silently assembling to invest the barracks. Each side thought that the other was attacking and began to fire wildly.
And now at daylight there they were, the blue-coated gendarmes lying down lining the tramway-street on one side of the parade-ground, the khaki soldiers behind the wall of the barracks on the other. A dead horse and a few pools of blood lay about, but the losses in the splutter of rifle-fire were only one killed and two wounded on the side of the gendarmes, and two killed among the Royalist troops. One or two Greek civilians,. poor vagabonds sleeping out, also stopped stray bullets.
There is a long and unsavoury stream-bed that runs along one side of the parade-ground past the bottom of my garden. It was amusing to watch from the roof of the house Royalist and revolutionary, skirmishers begin simultaneously to steal alone this, each hidden from the other by the twists and turnings in it. They would get within about thirty yards before catching sight of each other, then both would bob down with great alacrity and lie there under cover with their rifles ready to fire.
But there was to be no more fighting. Some of the civilian volunteers, looking very comitadji-like in plain clothes with assorted rifles and bandoliers, did indeed arrive, and seemed to be gathering for a flank attack under the corner of my house, but their spirits were so undecided that when a Royalist officer came out of the barracks, walked up to them and began to abuse them, they only listened sheepishly in awkward silence. "If we get hold of Zimbrakakis," remarked this officer amiably, "we will cut him in pieces."
But General Sarrail had already decided that the Greeks could not be allowed to settle their political differences by sniping each other in the streets of the town that was his military base. So at 6 A.M. a hundred French infantry and half a troop of cavalry marched onto the Champ de Mars with the deliberate and business-like air of police arriving at a pacifist demonstration. Half an hour later, a thousand more followed. They lined the sides of the parade-ground, sent two platoons round to the back of the barracks, set up their machine-guns, and lay down., ready to open fire at a word. An anti-aircraft motor-lorry drew up and trained its field-gun onto the main gate of the Royalist fortress at 300 yards' range. A battery of six trench-mortars was set out in a suitable position. Three aeroplanes came and circled overhead.
The garrison at the barracks watched these cold-blooded preparations with evident dismay. Heads kept on bobbing up and down anxiously behind the wall. Were the revolutionary gendarmes being reinforced by the French for a joint attack to overwhelm the Royalist defenders and convert them at the point of the bayonet? The outpost in the stream-bed was recalled inside. Then a little convoy of empty carts came very peaceably out of the main gate, presumably to fetch the day's rations, and try to restore things to a normal basis by following out the regular routine. The revolutionary pickets sternly turned it back, however. to the undisguised discouragement of the garrison, who had been watching the fate of this important mission with anxiety.
It was curious to see how little attention the ordinary population of Salonica paid to these happenings. They went streaming past on foot and in the trams along the street at the bottom of the parade-ground, hardly turning their heads to notice the blue-coated revolutionaries and the khaki-coated Royalists facing each other with arms in their hands at the side of the street. A population that has seen so many uprisings and disorders within the last few years,---the bullet-holes in the walls have not yet been filled up after the street-fighting between Greeks and Bulgarians in 1913,---could hardly be expected to give great attention to so haphazard a bickering as this.
At 10.30 General Sarrail. arrived on the parade-ground. At the same time, about fifty Royalist officers without their swords trooped out of the barracks and walked across to a building on the parade-ground, where Sarrail followed them. The interview was of a few minutes only, and it took place standing. General Sarrail is always energetic and decisive, and he dominated this situation very completely. "I don't want to mix myself up between Greek and Greek," he said, "but I will not have shooting going on in the streets of this town which is my base and headquarters," and, turning to Colonel Tricoupis, the leader of the Royalists, Sarrail told him bluntly that he must come at once to a peaceful settlement. On this, Tricoupis replied that while the Royalist officers refused to have any dealings with their revolutionary opponents they had no objection to concluding an agreement with the French. On this, Sarrail called for their immediate surrender, and pointed out that he had troops of his own there in considerable strength to enforce submission if it were refused. The officers, he said, could keep their swords. The men would be disarmed and marched to the French camp at Zeitenlick.
The surrender demanded was accorded without further resistance. The "revolution" was over, and the Committee of National Defence, taking over the administration of Salonica, though French martial law continued to exist there, issued next day a decree mobilising the 1915 class throughout Macedonia, which was the beginning of the co-operation of Greek forces with the Allies in the field.
Meanwhile, the movement spread to other towns of the province, and gradually gathered strength.
IN December, 1915, the Serbian Army had ceased to exist. The retreat across the Albanian mountains in the snow had left it no more than a rabble of literally starving men. Yet in May, 1917, the Serbian Army was in being again. It was certainly reduced to less than a third of its original numbers, but it was a fighting force once more, and stood by the side of its Allies at Salonica.
This reconstruction, or rather re-creation, of the Serbian Army is one of the finest feats of organisation that the Allies have performed in the whole war. The credit of it is due not only to the unquenchable patriotism and spirit of the Serbs but to the resourcefulness, the energy and the tact of the "Military Missions," one of which was sent out by each of the Allied Powers to meet that rout of half-demented survivors of the sufferings of Albania, to feed them, clothe them, equip them, help them to get back their military efficiency and finally transport them to our base in the Balkans, from where they might begin again their struggle against the tyrannical invaders of their country.
The terrible story of the retreat across Albania has been vividly told by those who went through it. There is no record in history of so ghastly a march. It surpasses in horror the story of the Grande Armée's withdrawal from Moscow. The tracks the starving host followed through the snow-covered mountains were marked by a trail of corpses. Austrian prisoners and Serbian civilians were mixed haphazard with the disorganised army. The former were "marching towards Scotland through the snow," as I heard a survivor of the retreat describe it, for the English Government had offered to find accommodation in Scotland for the Austrian prisoners of Serbia. Few of the Serbian civilians survived their sufferings. The banks of the Skumbi river were strewn for days with the corpses of well-dressed men, women and children, refugees from Belgrade, whose strength had failed in fording the stream. They lay there till the dogs devoured them.
Literally without any food at all for days together the long files of wretched men plodded on through rain and snow over precipitous goat-tracks and through waist-deep marshes. Often they had to turn and drive off attacks from the treacherous Albanians, and many a man preferred death by his own rifle or by sinking into the fatal sleep of utter exhaustion in the snow, to a continuance of such sufferings.
And it is morally certain that even the strongest who kept on through it all to the end would have died when they reached the coast of the Adriatic if it had not been for the system of food-supply which the Allies organised. At Scutari many men did not touch food for six days. The officers were able to buy a little bread at twelve to fifteen shillings a loaf.
The British Military Mission, whose headquarters had now been established at Rome, had organised with great difficulty a service of pack-animal food-convoys from Medua to supply the Serbians at Scutari. The apprehension that the food ships might be attacked by the Austrians delayed their sailing. One ship, indeed, went down with a loss of sixty English A.S.C. details.
The Serbs were so exhausted, however. that for a few days it looked as though they would never find the heart to make another effort. But if the Serbian Army was yet to be saved they must once more set out on another march of five or six days, over swampy ground and in danger of attack from the Albanians, as far as Valona. To have embarked them north of that port would have been to take a big risk of attack from the Austrian fleet lying at Cattaro.
The only way to encourage the Serbs to start out again for Durazzo was to create food depots along the road. The decision, indeed, to make the Serbs undertake this fresh journey was a desperate one. The men were so weakened by dysentery that many were simply swallowed in the marshes on the road, not having enough strength to struggle out of them. On this part of their journey to safety the British Mission saved thousands of lives. They organised ferries across the rivers, improved the road in the worst places, and saw to it that the dispirited soldiers had enough but not more than enough food to take them on their way, for after their weeks of starvation many of them tended to eat more than their enfeebled constitutions would stand, and so died when their hardships were all but over.
From Valona the Serbs were transported by the French very expeditiously. to Corfu. The 80,000 men who marched down from Scutari were increased to 130,000 by another contingent which had made straight for Valona. But even when the safety of Corfu was reached the exhausted Serbs were still in a desperate condition. The Serbian Government has since bought the land where many of them are buried in the little island opposite Corfu town that was used as a quarantine station, and on it a memorial will be raised after the war to those who died there.
It took some time to organise,---in abominable weather,---the housing and feeding of the dispirited host at Corfu. The Allied Missions only arrived there a week before the men, and transport had to be imported and piers built for the supply of so great a multitude.
The refitting and re-equipment of the Serbian Army had been arranged by an Allied conference at Paris. The French provided rifles and artillery, and the feeding and clothing of the destitute army was shared in equal proportions by France and England.
Gradually, as the spring drew on, the Serbians got back their strength again, and the work of re-organising them into an army could be begun.
Another and equally difficult process, however, yet remained to be performed. The Serbs had to be transported to Salonica through waters where enemy submarines were waiting for this very chance. So closely did they keep their watch on the island that they were even seen by Serbian troops at drill on the shore. The French are responsible for the organising of this transport of the Serbs to Salonica, and they did it extremely well. Fifteen transports and two auxiliary cruisers were available for the work, each vessel making three-and-a-half voyages a month. The first shipload of Serbs reached Salonica on April 15th, and the last had arrived several days before the end of May.
Not a man was lost on the voyage, and greatly though this redounds to the secrecy and efficiency with which the French made their plans, much of the credit is also due to the British trawlers which helped to escort the Serbian troopships, patrolling and sweeping up mines in the waters through which they were to pass. The transports left Corfu in pairs with an escort of destroyers. They would start out as if heading for Marseilles or Bizerta, and, when away from the island, alter course and zigzag the rest of the way to Salonica. The enemy submarine commanders certainly missed a remarkably good opportunity. It can scarcely be that they were lulled into inactivity by the negotiations that were carried on as a bluff by the Allies with the Greek Government for the transport of the Serbians from Patras overland.
Special piers had been built for the arrival of the new contingent at Micra, a deserted spot on the shores of the Gulf of Salonica east of the town, and there two or three vessels would arrive regularly during the night. While the process of discharging was going on French gendarmes kept any one from approaching the pier, and everything in connection with their arrival was carried out with the greatest secrecy.
An entire town of tents and huts and storehouses had soon sprung up on the empty green flats of Micra and the Vasilika valley, and the big, brawny, simple-mannered men, all with their characteristically shaped caps, but some wearing English khaki and some French horizon-blue, began to add yet another costume to the motley aspect of the Salonica streets.
The Serbs even possessed the nucleus of a navy. Admiral Troubridge, who was in command of the international naval division which helped to defend Belgrade, had arranged for the training of about forty men, who had mostly been boatmen on the Danube, by cruises in British warships. They wore British uniform, except for the cap-ribbon, and the fact that the officers were in soldier's khaki.
Their little craft, the "Greater Serbia," was an old Greek torpedo-boat that had since been used as a ferry-boat and was bought by the Serbian Government at Corfu. There was a story that when it was about to be brought round from Corfu to Salonica, her captain applied to the Allied Military Missions for a gun to be mounted on board. But the Allies gravely replied that as the "Greater Serbia" would probably make the voyage to Salonica on the deck of a transport they considered that a gun was hardly necessary.
But, though unarmed, the little steamer with the Serbian ensign at the stern did useful though humble work at Salonica in towing men and stores from place to place on the shores of the Gulf.
It was a remarkable thing, but one that is significant of the buoyancy of their spirits, that, in spite of past sufferings and present exile, the Serbians immediately on their arrival at Salonica began to entertain their comrades of the other Allied Armies.
They showed eagerness to make closer acquaintance with them, and their own hospitality and frank, open ways caused a particularly close feeling of friendship to spring up between the Serbs and our English soldiers, though most of these had never in their lives seen a Serbian before, nor had they one word of common language. The Serbian "slava,"---a sort of regimental festival and feast,---became a new feature in the social life of Salonica, though it was one which required considerable robustness on the part of foreign guests unused to hospitality on the Serbian scale.
A "slava" would begin at about 9 A.M. It is an outdoor affair, and the first hour or two would be devoted to a religious service, with quaint rites like the blessing and ceremonial cutting-up of a cake, and to military parades and speeches,---slavas usually commemorate the exploits of some hero or a battle against the Turks in the Middle Ages, for, as Mr. Lloyd-George has since said, this little people since the fourteenth century has kept alive the memory of its defeat by the Turks in the sure and certain hope of ultimate deliverance. Then about eleven o'clock, at a long table under an arbour of leaves, the officers of the regiment and their guests sit down to lunch. That lunch would last till three, and it left one with a vivid idea of what a mediæeval baronial banquet must have been like. The succession of courses, many of them Serbian national dishes of unusual composition, seemed unending, and the Colonel of the regiment, whom custom required not to sit down but to move constantly about looking after his guests, saw to it that one's glass was never empty for the frequent toasts that the presence of so many Allies of different nationalities made necessary.
Towards the end of luncheon the regimental band would appear in front of the arbour, followed by a rush of soldiers who join hands and begin to dance the "Kola." Like most national dances of the Balkans the Kola is a sort of sideways shuffle danced by any number of people, hand in hand, to a wailing skirl of flutes supported by a lot of banging on the drum. The Serbian officers would spring from their seats to join their men in this fandango, which would go on for an hour together, and it was evidence of the feeling of being at home with which the easy-going hospitality of the Serbs filled their guests that English and French officers would be drawn in too, and skip and spring and caper without the slightest feeling of making themselves conspicuous.
The unbroken spirit of these big-built men simply astonished one. They had gone through more than any nation among the Allies. In each of the six years from 1912 to 1917 they have been at war. Their losses have been terrible. There is very little of the manhood of the nation left.
The whole hope of the regeneration of Serbia lay. in fact, with those hundred thousand men who landed at Micra pier, and so heavily have the Serbs lost in the fierce fighting that they have since waged among the rocky hills on the banks of the Cerna that the repopulation of their country, when it has been won back again, will be a problem of the lack of fathers.
Yet it is rare to see a despondent Serb. "Those are my wife and children," a Serbian officer will say. showing you a photograph. "I have not seen them or heard of them since we left Belgrade in October, 1915. I have tried to get into touch with them by advertising in Swiss papers, which the Germans allow to be imported into Serbia, but I have had no reply. Whether they are alive or dead, whether they have money or are starving, even whether they have been allowed to remain in Serbia at all, I haven't the vaguest idea."
It is with such heavy griefs weighing upon each individual's mind that the, Serbian Army has fought so stoutly and that it yet rejects the offer, which the Bulgars and Austrians have held out, of bringing this suspense and separation to an end on the inglorious terms of national surrender.
The Serbian Crown Prince Alexander came among the first to Salonica, but his dark, aquiline face is not often seen by the people of the town. When he is there he keeps to the grounds of the villa that is reserved for him in a quiet side-street, studying, as I found him already doing. on the morning after his arrival, the maps which cover the table in his plainly furnished workroom, and receiving reports from the officers of his staff. His father, King Peter, for whom he acts as Regent, had reached Salonica from Corfu earlier in the year, but he maintains a strict seclusion. He has grown a beard which preserves him from recognition by any Stranger who may catch sight of him, and except for a short visit to Vodena, has hardly left his house in Salonica.
Prince George of Serbia, who was formerly the heir to the throne, but resigned the succession to his younger brother, is a familiar figure on the Serbian front. Very impetuous and entirely offhand in his actions, casually dressed, usually in a couple of muddy raincoats, the one underneath longer than the one on top, he makes no parade of princedom. "He is always the first out of the car to shove," says an English officer who often travels with him, and those who have motored much in the Balkans know how often the opportunity for energy and self-sacrifice of that kind arises. Prince George's readiness to expose himself to the risks of the firing-line is conspicuous. He has arrived sometimes in the front lines just before an attack takes place and has gone over the parapet with the men. During this summer of 1917, indeed, the Prince has had his horse shot under him while reviewing Salonica troops close up to the front.
One may be permitted while on the subject of the Serbians to remark upon a happy innovation which the British Government has introduced into the maintenance of our relations with them. This is the attachment to the staff of the Serbian Crown Prince of a senior British officer of wide experience in the person of Vice-Admiral E. T. Troubridge. Admiral Troubridge had greatly assisted in the defence of Belgrade during the autumn of 1915 when in command of an international naval force there. He organised a flotilla of gunboats on the Danube and his naval guns were some of the most efficient artillery that the Serbian capital possessed. After accompanying the Serbian Army in its desperate retreat across Albania, the Admiral was sent out again to the Balkans to be attached to the Serbian Crown Prince and to take command of the naval brigade that might have been despatched there had the campaign made progress.
But the services which so experienced an officer has been able to render to the relations, sometimes delicate, between ourselves and the Serbs, have been more valuable even than those of an artillery commander in the field. With the knowledge of international relations which a former Chief of the War Staff possesses, and with the assistance of such an expert in Balkan affairs as Commander Alfred Stead, his flag-officer, Admiral Troubridge has done more than any one individual to keep our relations with the Serbians at the degree of cordiality and confidence which has always characterised them. When our attitude in some matter has puzzled the Serbs they have come to him for explanation and reassurance. When they have had some view which they wished to put before our Government it has often been to Admiral Troubridge that it was submitted first. This rôle of super-liaison officer, or unofficial military ambassador (for the Serbian nation is now no more than its army), is one that might well be renewed in our relations with others of our Allies; though it is true that its value and success depend entirely upon the personality and the abilities of the man chosen to fulfil it.
And while the whole of the Serbian nation that is free is now based upon Salonica as an army in the field, the machinery of the Serbian Government left without a country to administer, has waited patiently at Corfu. Had our recapture of Monastir been followed, as was expected, by the repulse of the Bulgars as far as Prilep, the Serbian Ministry would have been brought back onto its own territory and regained a limited exercise of its functions. But Monastir is still a place where you need a shrapnel helmet and a gas-mask, so the Government of Serbia has remained until now in its exile at Corfu.
I went to Corfu in the spring of 1917 and was received there by M. Pasitch, the aged Serbian Prime Minister. The island is another of those places which the war has strangely transmogrified. Despite its five-storied, green-shuttered, Italian-looking houses the atmosphere of the place is peculiarly English, but English of the mid-Victorian period, when we abandoned it as a gift to the since-ungrateful Greeks. Though you will hardly find an Englishman among the Serbs, Italians, French and Greeks who at present throng its streets, the stamp of our occupation was solidly enough impressed to be apparent still at every turn.
There is the heavy, portico-fronted Government House, in the neo-Doric style, which is the reproduction of similar official buildings that British architects were putting up at the same time all over the world, conservatively regardless of considerations of climate or convenience. Here you have the trim Parade-ground or Maidan or Belvedere, with its inevitable classic temple, looking as if it might be a part of Tunbridge Wells in the Regency days. Here is the Hotel St. George with solid, heavy, shining mahogany furniture, and a big tin mid-nineteenth century tub that is produced when you ask for a bath. The very shops and arcades persistently remind one of a sleepy little old-fashioned English country town. Randolph Caldecott might have drawn Widow Blaize looking out of those quaint little square-paned windows. You feel as if you expected to meet a crinoline or a bobwig at every street-corner.
SALONICA is a very museum of the Allies. Of the principal Allied Armies in the field only representatives of the Americans and Portuguese are lacking, and there used to be rumours that even they were coming. In the Balkans there is none of the isolation that keeps the armies of different nationalities apart in France. All of us rub shoulders at our common base of Salonica. The Annamite and the Serbian sit side by side in the tram without either finding the juxtaposition odd. A brigade of blond Russians may. be relieved by a brigade of black Senegalese. Italian, Frenchman, Englishman and Greek will share a table in a restaurant, and it is very satisfactory to find that in spite of his customary ignorance of any language but his own,---in which respect he is no worse than the average Frenchman, however,---the Englishman seems as generally popular all round as any of the Allies. He fraternises with the Russian,---a particularly convivial soul; he exchanges inarticulate but hearty handshakes with the Serb; he embarks courageously upon conversations in his best Rouen French with the Frenchman; and as any number of the Italians speak English, he gets on all right with them.
But what a curse the obstacles of language are, and how much envy is aroused by the galling fluency of that Englishman over there, whose parents sent him to live in France at an age when most of us were at a private school. Of course French is the common tongue of the Allied Armies, but few Englishmen can really speak it well enough to make conversation a pleasure,---especially for the Frenchman whose ear is so sensitive to maltreatment of his beautiful tongue. I have a scheme for after the war for which I have already obtained the approval of Frenchmen who suffer from the barrier of tongues as we do. It is this: When Peace comes it will leave the Frenchman,---it may be said between ourselves,---with an increased respect for English institutions and particularly for the character which is the unique educational product of the English public school; it will leave the Englishman with an increased respect for the brilliance and intelligence of the French; and with a determination that his sons, at least, shall not be so tongue-tied as their father was directly he left his own country. Many French parents will want their sons to have an education on the English system,---games, prefects, corporal punishment, esprit de corps,---that has produced the keen, sporting, gallant type of Englishman he has come to respect, but the Frenchman hates sending his boy abroad; he does not like going abroad himself; France is very properly the cream of the earth for him. And the Englishman does not care to send his son to a French lycée of the present type, great though the advantage of learning the French language well may be, because he does not wish the boy to lose the character-training of an English public school.
A big inter-Ally school in France, therefore, with English masters and organised on public-school lines, would meet both these cases. The English boy will learn the language of the country and still live under the same regime as if he had gone to a school at home, and the French boy will benefit. from the same treatment.
To get the right spirit from the start, the best way to bring the scheme into being would perhaps be to bring about the amalgamation of some existing English school with a well-known lycée in France. The thing would want carrying out well in the way of buildings and equipment, and it ought to form a special sort of tie between the Allied countries.
The two Russian brigades that began to arrive on July 30th brought flat caps and sad-coloured linen blouses as an addition to the assortment of military costumes which throng the streets of Salonica. The men composing them were all volunteers for service abroad, and were remarkable for their size. They seemed to average at least thirteen stone.
They marched up to their camp at Zeitenlick, where they had three months of vigorous training. People used to turn off the Lembet road to see the Russians, practising a charge. The line of hundreds of long, thin Lebel bayonets, each with a heavy Russian shouting behind it, looked, as it came sweeping over a rise in the ground, about as formidable a thing as you could find in the way of human mechanism of the battlefield.
I was with these same Russians during part of their march up to the front before Monastir in October. It was beautiful to go into the little Greek church of a village near which they camped for the night and hear the deep-toned, musical Gregorian chanting of the responses from the mass of devout and stalwart soldiers crowded together in the dim light of the tapers feebly flickering before tawdry pictures of Orthodox saints.
On August 10th, only a few days before the battle of Ostrovo, related in the last chapter, the first detachments of a very strong Italian division, the 35th, under General the Marquis Petiti di Roreto, one of General Cadorna's most trusted lieutenants, arrived at Salonica.
They surprised the rest of the Allied Army in the Balkans. Very few indeed of us had then seen Italian soldiers in the field in this war. And we had not expected troops of such excellent quality. The men were rather on the small side, perhaps, but they were solid and stocky and bronzed by months of fighting in the Trentino. The smartness of the turnout of both officers and rank and file struck one at once and has never since varied. The men's equipment is of a greenish-coloured leather that harmonises with the slate-grey of their uniform. The officers' clothes are cut with a graceful line that makes them picturesque without detracting from a soldierly appearance. There is a touch of brightness in the white neckcloth just showing above the collar that takes away from the dullness of a field-kit, and on the collar itself are pretty gorget-patches varying in colour, shape and material with the wearer's corps. An Italian officer tilts his smart, black-vizored kepi at a hardly discernible angle, but for all their well-dressed appearance the frequency of the blue ribbon of the medal for valour on the chests of these slim young soldiers and the bullet-tattered colours of their regiments were signs that they were no carpet-knights,---as indeed they soon proved by their remarkable efficiency in the Balkans.
Their march through Salonica from the Quay was watched with friendly curiosity by crowds. Walking alone, but of a stature that would have made him conspicuous anywhere, was their General, Petiti di Roreto, an Anak among men, about six feet four high and vast in breadth and solidity, who has since been promoted to the command of an Army Corps in Italy. It was he who three months later, while in Monastir a few days after its capture, was badly wounded in the leg by a shell which killed several men close to him. Two of the orderlies who were with him tried to lift their huge general to carry him to cover, but could not move him, so they ran off to get help, leaving General Petiti to the care of a little Italian soldier about one-third his size, who, as the shells continued to burst near, kept on exclaiming, "Courage, General!" with such buoyancy that the prostrate general, despite the pain of his wound, could not help chuckling in his white beard. In February of this year I went to stay with General Petiti at his headquarters at Tepavci. He had just come back from the Italian Hospital in Salonica to rejoin his division, although his wound was not yet healed.
The Italians needed no time to re-organise on landing at Salonica. They went up on September 1st to take over a sector of the Allied front-line, along the Krusha-Balkan heights which faced the Belashitza range, and carry our front round from the end of the Vardar-Doiran sector to the Struma valley. There they had an English division on their right and a French colonial division on their left. The division which the Italians relieved was also French.
The front they were to hold was twenty-seven miles long. It had as yet no wire in front of it, except about the scattered redoubts that took the place of a continuous line of trenches. It looked across the broad green valley to the high wall of the Belashitza beyond. Down this valley runs the line from Salonica to Constantinople after its sharp turn to the east at Doiran. There were, however, four isolated posts right across the valley at the foot of the Belashitza (Upper Poroi, Palmis and two others), which the French had occupied. Each of the four villages was held by one company, and was so far from the possibility of support that General Petiti decided to evacuate them. But on the day fixed for this,---it was in the middle of September,---the Bulgars suddenly attacked Poroi with a battalion and a half, under cover of a barrage from the Bulgarian guns up on the steep Belashitza slopes behind.
The Italians could do nothing to silence these batteries, for it was a curious circumstance imposed by the formation of the ground in this sector that the artillery of either side was out of range of the other. Each side had its guns on the hills dominating the flat valley between and neither could do more than put up extreme range barrages to cover its own infantry in an attack. The Italian company at Poroi was ordered to hold on there to the last, in order to cover the retreat of the three companies in the other isolated villages. It was impossible to send out troops to reinforce these little outposts owing to the concentrated and continuous enemy barrage. So that, although three of the companies got back by noon to the Italian lines, the fourth, protecting their retreat at Poroi, became surrounded. It might then have surrendered, its duty done, and hope of extricating itself being gone, but instead continued fighting all the afternoon. Night came, and still the rattle of their rifles and machineguns did not cease. It was not until next day after thirty-six hours of resistance, when their ammunition must have been exhausted, that the gallant two hundred or what was left of them brought their struggle to an end, probably by a charge, for cries of "Avanti, Savoia!" rang out across the valley to the saddened hearing of their comrades back on the Krusha-Balkan. Then followed silence.
The first encounter of the Italians with the Bulgars had ended, not triumphantly, but with all the honours of war upon the side of our Allies.
When the 57th French Division on the Italian left was ordered away from the Krusha-Balkan to the Monastir front, the Italians at very short notice took over part of their line, and at the beginning of October, at the other end of their sector, they made a demonstration attack against Butkovo Djuma to assist the Serbians in their fighting in front of Monastir, in the same way as we at the same time attacked Zir, Bala and Yenikeuy.
But at the end of November the Italians were withdrawn from the Krusha-Balkan front.
The excellence of the roads, bridges and hutments that they had built, and the readiness with which they helped our men in the process of settling in, made a great impression on the English.
One of their brigades had the previous month gone up to Monastir; it was their headquarters in the newly captured city that General Petiti was visiting when he was wounded. The rest of the Italian division now moved up the same way and by the end of December, 1916, had taken over the ground that the Serbs and the French had won in the loop of the Cerna river.
Of all the desolate country included in the long line of the Allies in the Balkans I think that ten miles of front in the "W" that the Cerna makes on the east of Monastir is the most dreary. Not a tree grows there; hardly a shrub. It is a savage waste of stones and rocks and boulders and ravines; the mountainside slopes steeply; close ahead of you lowers the forbidding skyline of fierce crags and formidable cliffs. Except for infrequent and miserable hamlets like Brod, and Veliselo and Tepavci, of a squalor unusual even in Macedonia, there is no sign of human habitation. Behind you lies the fertile flat of the plain of Monastir, with the Cerna marshes gleaming in the light, and beyond, fifteen miles away, the fair prospect of the well-tilled mountains that bar off Lake Prespa. On that side much beauty, but ahead nothing but barren, unrelenting slopes. And if you took your eyes from the distant prospect, to examine more closely the ground about you, what you saw there was grimmer still, for the rough surface of the ground was covered with an extraordinary litter of war material abandoned by the German troops who had unavailingly been hurried here to stiffen the Bulgarians in their resistance to the Serbian advance beyond the Cerna, which gradually levered the enemy out of Monastir. Unexploded hand-grenades lay so thick that it was almost dangerous to walk and certainly dangerous to ride about. There is a sort of German drumstick bomb which explodes five seconds after you pull a string; sometimes bombs of this kind were covered with earth, leaving only the string showing, and inquisitive Serbian and Italian soldiers occasionally would pull at these strings to see what was at the other end of them, with results fatal to themselves. Bayonets, smashed and twisted rifles, the fragments and fish-tails of aerial torpedoes, grey German helmets and enough gas-masks to equip a brigade were scattered everywhere. And it was curious, one of the strange little contrasts of war, on this desolate Macedonian height, to pick up picture postcards showing the Zoologischer Garten, or some Berlin café that one had known well in years gone by, addressed to Fusilier Jakob Kautsky or to Gardejaeger Wilhelm Reinhardt, with those trivial little messages of news and love from home which the German soldiers, like our men, receive. Most gruesome of all the relies of the fierce fighting that had taken place in this Cerna sector, were the graves of the German dead. For the ground had been too hard to bury them, and the mound of scraped-up earth and stones, built instead over the body where it fell, had often been washed away by the winter rains, so that a pair of heavy field-boots, a grey-clad shoulder, or an earthy hand thrust itself out from the grisly heap. A thankless land to fight for, it must have seemed to these German soldiers, that even refused them burial when they were dead.
This line, when the Italians took it over, was not well entrenched, but they set to work on it with all the energy and skill that they had learnt in fighting among the rocks of the Trentino. The Italians are extraordinarily efficient at mountain engineering.
Their transport system is another matter in which they especially excel. From their model motor-transport depot at the base to the topmost hauling' station of their aerial cable ways in the mountains, they are thoroughly practical and efficient. To begin with, the Italians have only two types of motor-lorry, a fact which greatly simplifies the problem of spare parts that was such a nightmare to the transport of other armies in the Balkans. They have a 25 h.p. 30-hundredweight Fiat lorry and a little 1-ton Itala of 14 "mule-power," as the Italian M.T. officers call it, because it will go up the steepest slopes over the roughest surfaces.
The Italian Division's use of the single railway line which they had to share with the French, Serbs and Russians used to be limited to eighteen trucks a day as far as Sakulevo. They supplemented this, however, by long distance motor transport on the road.
To get stores from Sakulevo to Brod on the Cerna gave them another occasion for showing ingenuity. The little Sakulevo river flows from Sakulevo to Brod, where it falls into the Cerna, and the Italians partly economise the use of the eight miles of road between these two points by floating supplies in bridging-pontoons down the river with the stream.
Two pontoons lashed together with two or three men to steer them carry two tons, and at Brod the pontoons, when unloaded, are simply sent back in the lorries which would otherwise have to return empty to Sakulevo. As a caustic English officer said, "In our army we could not have done a thing like that without correspondence with the Admiralty and the appointment of a naval transport officer."
But the specialty of the Italian organisation is their aerial railways, which they call "Telefericas." These aerial cable ways carry steel baskets which take five hundredweight, one basket each way each trip, moving at five miles an hour. The power comes from a 16 h.p. motor engine at the higher end of the line, supported on a framework of steel, which is ballasted with stones. The cables are slung on supports of hollow steel tubing. The whole installation can be taken down and carried away in loads of quite moderate weight, and the effect of the Teleferica is to make what would otherwise be the hardest part of the transport route the easiest. Lightness and transportability are prominent characteristics of all Italian material; their tents even are less bulky though no less comfortable than ours, and the big mess-tents are of a picturesque rakish design that calls to mind the pavilion of a Roman general, just as the splendid swing with which an Italian officer throws the end of his long grey cloak across his body and back over his shoulder must be the direct descendant of a similar gesture with the toga.
Staying at the Italian headquarters mess reminded me of nothing so much as being at a Swiss winter-sports hotel. You came out of a driving snowstorm through a draught-proof wooden door into the electrically lighted marquee, warmed by one of those black Tuscany stoves called from their shape porcolini, with a tray of water on the top to prevent the air from getting too dry. The cooking was most excellent; the mess waiters had acquired their skill at the Carlton or the Savoy, and similar hotels in every capitol of Europe. A thing one noticed was that hardly anybody drank even wine, while there was no sign at all of the vermouth, the whiskey, the port and liqueurs without which we English should find life on campaign miserable indeed.
The Italians had a hard time during the winter in this exposed sector; in January they evacuated 250 cases of frostbite, as many men as were sent down wounded during the same period.
The chief feature of the enemy position over against them was the precipitous height of Hill 1050. This peak on the left of their front was first captured by the 2me bis Zouaves on November 20th, under the command of General Misitch,---an action for which they were awarded the distinction of the fourragère. When the Italians took over Hill 1050 they established an observation-post there which was of great value to them, and it was to prevent this use of the crest that the German Gardejaeger launched, on the evening of February 12th, the first flame attack they made in the Balkans. Just as darkness fell tongues of fire and dense stifling clouds of black and sooty smoke leapt suddenly from the German front line, which was close up to the Italian positions on the hill. The burning liquid ran down the steep incline of the Italian trenches, destroying everything it met with. The enemy followed up their surprise by an immediate infantry attack. The failing light made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe, and the Italians were driven from the crest of 1050, and from the trenches to the left of it, towards Piton A, losing 200 men to the destructive flames. But after occupying these trenches the Germans were held up by Italian reserves only a little way further down the slope, and General Petiti, informed of the attack by telephone, immediately ordered a counter-assault, which was renewed again and again throughout that night and next day until practically all the lost trenches were taken again at a cost of three officers and eighty men killed and seventy wounded. On February 27th, a few days after my stay in the Italian headquarters, the Italians made an attempt to re. occupy the crest of the hill which had been, since they lost it, virtually neutral ground. The Germans, how ever, had used their time since the last attack in mining the summit, and though the Italians won it back, taking sixty-nine prisoners, it was only to have a number of men blown into the air.
But although the advantage of position was so much on the side of the enemy the Italians never lost ground, and still continue to hold their rockbound sector in the Cerna loop.
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