THE cluster of steep hills that rises from the side of Doiran Lake stands almost at the geographical centre of the Allied Front. Chief among these heights are the positions of Hill 535 with the Pip ridge,---so called from the series of little hillocks on the shoulder descending towards the British lines, which are distinguished as Pips 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, the Grand Couronné and Petit Couronné. On these steep slopes the enemy has three distinct systems of trenches about a thousand yards apart, each line higher up the hillock than those in front of it, and consequently commanding them. But it is not altitude or steepness alone which gives to these positions their formidable nature. What makes them so difficult to attack is the irregularity of the welter of smaller hills at their feet, which provides a series of natural bastions and outposts.
If you glance at a good contour map of this country by Lake Doiran, your eye will be confused by a tangle of abrupt slopes divided by steep precipitous ravines which twist in and out among a bewildering number of hillocks, spurs and under-features that make the ground especially arduous for an infantry advance.
As you look at this position from the front, you are strongly reminded of an old mediaeval citadel. For there, in one corner of the whole enceinte, you usually find a concentrated group of towers and bastions that formed the main stronghold of the defence. Overtopping all is the keep, but assembled around that are lesser towers and turrets, each supporting but at the same time dominating the other, so that, should some of these works be conquered by an enemy, he still remains in a position of inferior advantage until he has won them all.
The configuration of the ground at this corner of Lake Doiran is in exact parallel to such a mediaeval fortress. Hill 535 is the keep of the enemy's citadel. It towers above the other hills he holds, and ever since we took over this sector from the French, "the Dub." as it is also called, has haunted the British Army. Go where you will, that blunt, bald-browed head is looking at you. Quite a long way back from the fighting-line, as you go up a ravine that apparently is open to nothing but the sky, you will find the road screened by an artificial hedge or marked "for use by night only," and should you ask why, the inevitable answer is: "Under observation from the Dub." The Dub is the strongest point of the enemy's third and main line of defence. Its twin height in the same trench system is Grand Couronné, a mile nearer Lake Doiran, and of proportions only slightly less. Both these hills are conical in shape, with steep and barren sides. The white sears of the Bulgar trenches stretch across them like a girdle, and the humps of the long rampart like "Pip ridge" are each strongly fortified. Pip 3 is part of the second line of defence. Pip 4 1/2 was the westernmost objective of our first attack in force on April 24th.
After two days' artillery bombardment, which began on April 22nd, our first attack was delivered on the night of April 24th.
On the same evening, at the other end of the Vardar-Doiran front, a small demonstration was to be made against the position known as the "Nose."
The number of guns available on each side, about 200, was about the same; but the enemy artillery ran to heavier calibre, for they had several batteries of 8-inch howitzers, which did us very great damage in our attack. In strength of infantry, too, each side was approximately equal.
Our aim in this attack of April 24th was to carry the enemy first system of trenches, consolidate there, then bring up the guns and renew the assault on the trench systems behind. The immediate objectives of the troops actually engaged were as follows: On the left the infantry had to cross about 900 yards of ground and dig themselves in along the side of Jackson ravine, a little behind the enemy's original front line. The length of this new front of theirs would be 1,500 yards; but it had the disadvantage of being dominated not only by the enemy's second system of trenches further up the slope (the Tongue, the Knot, the Hilt, etc.), but also by the Petit Couronné and the rest of the enemy's front line, which was the objective of the brigades on the right, so that if the attack on the left succeeded and the attack on the right did not, the troops on the left would find themselves under extremely exposed conditions in its new line. This, in fact, is what did happen. But the troops on the left had most difficult conditions to face in their attack. For they had to cross the very steep and rocky Jumeaux ravine, about 300 yards wide, which separated their front-line trenches from those of the enemy. The infantry assault was fixed for 9.45 P.M., and half an hour before that time the enemy opened a barrage along our whole front. All up and down the high amphitheatre of hills on which the Bulgarian lines lay, flickering points of light flashed out, and new batteries constantly sprang into action to swell the thunder of the re-echoing reports. Powerful Bulgar searchlights, one in Doiran town and the other higher up the slopes behind, threw their cold white light along our front-line trenches, which were fringed by dense and writhing columns of the smoke and dust of bursting shells. Through this concentrated barrage, the infantry pressed gallantly on to the attack, and everywhere entered the enemy's lines, only to be driven out again by the heavy fire which the Bulgar guns opened on their own captured front trenches, and by determined counter-attacks. Down by the lake our men twice reached the enemy trenches, but had to fall back each time. On their left they met with strong resistance, and the few of them who got into the enemy's front line were not strong enough to stay there. A battalion attacked Petit Couronné, and by midnight were reported to have won a footing there. Other units, too, gained temporary mastery of their objectives. But the reinforcements sent to strengthen them could not get across that death-trap of Jumeaux ravine, into which the Bulgar trench mortars were dropping a barrage of projectiles as you might pitch pebbles into a trough. Such was the force of the explosions in that narrow space that men were blasted to death against the walls of rock by the shock alone: this was in addition to ceaseless shelling by their 8-inch howitzers.
In the darkness of the ravine, lit only by the flashes of the explosions and obscured still further by a drifting haze of dust, it was difficult for the infantry to keep in touch. In parts of it there was so much water in the stream at the bottom that the men had to wade waist-deep. As one looked from an artillery observation post up that dust and flame-filled gorge, it appeared impossible for any one to get across it alive at all.
Bulgarian reinforcements had been rushed up to the trenches from the ravines behind where they normally live in comparative safety. They fought with stubbornness and determination. "Come on, Johnny," they kept calling through the din to our soldiers struggling up the rocky slopes to reach the gaps in their wire.
The result of all this fighting was that by daybreak the whole of the right-hand brigades were back in their original lines. The troops, however, on the left had captured the whole of their 1,500-yard objective and held it throughout the night against four counterattacks. The position, though to this extent improved in our favour, was now an awkward one. We had, so to speak, advanced with one foot and been unable to bring the other up alongside it.
One satisfactory feature of the fighting was the chivalrous way in which the Bulgarians allowed our stretcher parties to go out in broad daylight between the lines and pick up wounded who were left lying there after the night attack. So steep are the rocky slopes of the Jumeaux ravine and so completely is it swept by enemy fire that it would otherwise have been extremely difficult to bring in the unfortunate fellows who had been left behind when we retired from the enemy trenches. But the morning after the fighting our doctors and stretcher-bearers with great gallantry stepped out directly into the open, trusting to no other protection than the Red Cross. For a moment fire was opened upon them from the Bulgar trenches, but almost immediately an enemy officer jumped up on their parapet, waving a blue flag. The fire at once ceased, and a message was evidently telephoned back to the Bulgarian batteries, for there was no shelling while our stretcher parties were at work. The Bulgars even allowed one of them to walk through a gap in their wire and pick up a man who was lying within ten yards of the enemy's parapet.
There was now a lull in the fighting for a fortnight, during which time the position remained as it had been on the morning of April 25th, the troops on the left maintaining the newly won footing in the enemy front line, though under miserably rainy weather conditions, which were made even more trying by the fact that the men, living like rats in holes in the side of Jackson ravine, could not have warm food or even tea, while they were so overlooked by the enemy that to stand up, much less to move about, brought upon them shelling and enfilading machine-gun fire.
A French attack at Monastir and in the Cerna loop was to have coincided with this offensive of ours, but heavy snow, even at this advanced season of the year, came on to delay the operation. The first attack of any importance made by the Greek contingents at the front took place, however, on the evening of May 5th, and gained ground to the extent of 500-1,500 yards, on a front of three miles on the right bank of the Vardar.
The next day we started artillery preparation again for a renewed assault upon the Doiran sector, though this time only holding attacks were to be made west of the Jumeaux ravine, the main effort being directed to capturing the enemy's front-line trenches. between that and the lake. The Bulgars had by nowm however, received reinforcements in guns, and four new regiments of infantry, though the latter were in a rather weakened state.
With the last of the daylight on the evening of May 8th, we began a violent final bombardment of the enemy's line. Right and left, in front and behind, his trenches sprang into fountains of flying earth. The dense smoke was pushed slowly along the bare slopes by the evening breeze, until by the time darkness fell, the whole of the narrow front which our infantry was waiting to attack was covered with a heavy mist, through which the brilliant Bulgar star shells shone with no more than a sullen glow.
Night had scarcely fallen when, in answer to red and green flares thrown up from Petit Couronné, the Bulgar batteries on the high ridge behind Doiran town began a like bombardment of our own entrenchments. The enemy was thoroughly aroused. His searchlights played anxiously along our front. The unmistakable sharp "crump," of trench mortars could be heard mingling with the drum-like din of the flickering batteries on the distant slopes. Sometimes would come a lull of a few short seconds, and while, it lasted the "croak-croak" of the frogs in Doiran Lake alone broke the peace of the spring night, as it had done for thousands of years before high explosives were invented.
Five minutes more to "X," the secret hour fixed in advance for the first wave of infantry to cross the parapet. The uproar of our own guns reached its maximum; the flames of the discharges flickered like summer lightning all round the hills. By this time, one's view of that formidable Jumeaux ravine which ,protects the front of the enemy's position like a moat, was just an opaque blur, among which countless lights of varying intensity flared and flashed without ceasing. Overhead, just visible as a black shadow against the violet sky, one of our aeroplanes droned by and crossed over into the enemy's territory.
Then suddenly broke out a fierce rattle of rifles and machine-guns. Our men were over the parapet and moving across that tumultuous, shell-pounded open, and for the rest of the night the only explanation of what was happening before one's eyes came in the form of scrappy telephone messages from Artillery Brigade Headquarters to the battery commander.
The result of the night's fighting was in the end exactly the same as that of the previous attack. The enemy line was entered, but made untenable for us by bombing and counter-attacks.
Just before dawn, the sectors on either side of Petit Couronné were recaptured by the enemy with the bomb and bayonet. But the infantry on Petit Couronné still stood their ground. They were on the southern slope of the hill, the top, with the trench on the edge of it, being empty. When day broke, and all through the morning of May 9th, one could see them moving about there, picking up wounded and occasionally working up in little parties to the top of the hill, where they would be met by enemy shellfire. Their colonel was wounded, but they hung on to Petit Couronné until 12.30 P.M., when they were called back, since the rest of the line had been evacuated, and it would have been impossible to maintain their position there.
Meanwhile, troops to the west of Krastali were carrying our line forward, but as the broad tract Of ground here between our positions and the enemy's was only occupied by a few unimportant outposts, this amounted to little more than a re-siting of our trenches.
The natural strength of the enemy's line had combined with his equality, if not superiority, of numbers to render his resistance effective, not only against us but at other points where he was attacked along the Allied line.
For there were going on, simultaneously with this attack, similar Allied offensive movements on the right bank of the Vardar by the French and Greeks, among the Moglena mountains by the Serbs, on the right bank of the Cerna river by the Serbs and the Russians brigaded with them, in the loop of the Cerna by the French, Russian and Italians, and especially on that semicircle of hills west and north of Monastir, where the French were faced by a strong concentration of Germans, Austrians and Bulgars. Local improvements of our line were made at several points, but nowhere was it found possible to drive a wedge into the Bulgar front.
And now the spring campaigning season was nearing its end, and it was time to think of what dispositions should be taken for the unhealthy summer. The sector principally concerned by the approach of the hot weather was the Struma. If we were to stay down by the malarial riverside, nothing could prevent a repetition of the heavy sick-list of the previous year. We were obliged to come up into the hills, and preparations for this withdrawal had been going on, in fact, for some months. But to delude the enemy as to our intentions an attack was made on May 15th upon three of his advanced groups of trenches covering the approach to the fortified village of Spatovo, which in turn bars the way to the Rupel pass.
These systems, known as the Essex, Drumstick and Ferdie groups, were carried and seventy prisoners taken. The same evening a brigade occupied Kumli village, where they were heavily shelled, being under direct observation from Sayjak ridge, opposite them, but nevertheless held their ground. The other troops also moved up the railway line to Kupri in cooperation.
Though there had been little action of a prepared character on the Struma since the successful attacks on Zir, Bala, Yenikeui and Bairakli Djuma the previous autumn, there had been constant patrol activities, for there was room enough between the opposing lines for this to be developed on a large scale. The Yeomanry held points out in front every night where they were frequently attacked by the Bulgars. The "Battle of the Level Crossing" became almost a standing fixture, and the infantry met constantly in Patrol Wood, between Kalendra and Hristos.
Ambushing was developed to a fine art by our troops on the Struma, and here the infantry had an advantage over the cavalry, for a mounted man's head can be seen coming above the rank crops of maize and the banks of sunken roads, so that the enemy can lie up for him with greater certainty.
But now (summer, 1917) we have withdrawn the main part of our troops from the line we had established beyond the Struma, and hold only a series of fortified bridgeheads which would be quickly rein forced from the hills if the enemy came on; but the Bulgar is as well aware of the unhealthiness of the Struma as we are. He put out placards: "We know you are going back to the hills: so are we," and now he, too, only has a strong outpost line in the plain. The only forces that hold the Struma valley in strength are the mosquitoes, and their effectives may be computed by thousands of millions.
THE situation in Athens all this time showed no improvement in the way of the renunciation by the King of his pro-German sympathies. Nor had the Allies in their indecision and unwillingness to take extreme measures done anything to force him out of the path of hostility, veiled by a guise of neutrality, in which his inclination kept him.
There seems to have been in England at this time a general feeling of rather naïve astonishment that King Constantine should ever have adopted, much less persisted, in this unfriendly attitude. We still have a somewhat insular standpoint in these matters, and do not easily bring ourselves to view a situation from the angle of the foreigner. There are no grounds for defending King Constantine; he acted unconstitutionally, deceitfully, treacherously; and besides being false to his Serbian allies, did his best to bring to naught our efforts to help them. He was wrong even in his most plausible argument,---that he was acting for the good of his people. But I believe it is incorrect to imagine, as apparently many did, that his opposition to us was inspired by sheer perversity and German pig-headedness. This refusal to credit King Constantine with any sincerity or regard for the interests of his subjects, the Greeks, had the disadvantage at the time of breeding the constant expectation in England that he would suddenly see the error of his ways, and turn and be converted to readiness to co-operate with Venizelos on behalf of the Allies. This seemed a consummation so reasonable and inevitable that we were always inclined to be patient and moderate, and give him just one more chance.
But the King's misguided hostility towards the Entente had its origin in many motives, and some of these at least were sincere. To begin with, King Constantine was naturally an obstinate man. You needed only to look at his big square, fleshy, heavy head for a sign of that. He was imbued, too, with the doctrine of the Divine right of kings. Venizelos himself told me that when, in September, 1915, he urged Constantine to fulfil his treaty obligations to Serbia, the King replied: "I am content to leave the internal affairs of my country to my Government, but for its foreign relations I hold myself alone responsible before God."
Furthermore, the King had been trained as a soldier in the German Guard, and, like others among his generals of similar experience, he saw during the first year of the war a translation into action by the Germans of so many of the lessons which he had learnt in theory at the Kriegschule that he was very naturally filled with a profound admiration for the genius and infallibility of the German military machine. "The Germans may not win, but they cannot be beaten in a hundred years," said King Constantine to a friend of mine, walking in his garden in the summer of 1915, and the ties which bound the Greek King to Germany were concisely defined by the German Emperor himself when, on August 4, 1914, at the very beginning of the war, he caused the Greek Minister in Berlin to telegraph to his master: "The Kaiser asks you, 'appealing to you as a comrade, and reminding his brother-in-law that Greece kept Kavalla thanks to the Kaiser's support,---to mobilise your army, to place yourself at his side, and to march with him hand in hand against Slavism and the common enemy. If Greece does not side with Germany," added Emperor William threateningly, "there will be a complete breach between Greece and the Empire." And all these influences, beliefs and prejudices which combined to keep King Constantine a German vassal were fortified and encouraged by his wife, that able and strong-minded lady, the Kaiser's sister, Queen Sophia.
Remember, too, that this Balkan monarch very naturally based his opinion of the Allies chiefly upon their conduct of the war in his immediate neighbourhood, and their treatment of questions in which he and his people were chiefly interested. And what a melancholy spectacle of military failure and diplomatic inefficiency it was that we placed beneath his eyes! There was the Dardanelles. Before that operation began the Allies proposed that the Greeks should co-operate in it with us. King Constantine and his General Staff replied: "If you attack the Dardanelles you will fail; they are impregnable; we investigated the matter thoroughly in the first Balkan War." The Allies paid no attention to this warning; at that stage they could probably hardly have done so if they would. They went ahead, attacked the Dardanelles, and failed most expensively. The obvious result was that the military foresight of King Constantine and his General Staff rose immensely in their own estimation.
The summer of 1915 went on; they watched our diplomats and our statesmen at home being hopelessly bluffed by the Bulgarians. They themselves, as natives of the Balkans, knew well the bitter hatred of Bulgar for Serb, the deadly resentment in Sofia of the Treaty of Bucharest, the fierce resolve of the Bulgarians not to rest until they had won back what they wanted of Macedonia. Our politicians, complacently unaware that any special or local knowledge was required for dealing with Balkan questions, gulped down the reassuring dissimulations of M. Radoslavoff, and were lulled into fatuous security by a nation of Balkan peasants until the latter were ready to strike. But the contempt which the Greeks felt for our inadequate diplomacy was increased to indignation when it was found that in the course of our negotiations with Bulgaria we had proposed that she should take the Greek port and the district of Kavalla as a set-off against what she demanded from the Serbians. What made it worse was that no mention of this altruistic proposal had been made to the Greeks, nor were steps even taken to ascertain whether the Bulgars would accept the proffered territory before the offer was officially made; the Greek people had the mortification of seeing its own possessions thrown into a bargain as a make-weight by one side, contemptuously rejected by the other, and all without their views as to this proposed disposal of their territory being ascertained at all. So that when the Bulgarians at length attacked the Serbs, and the Greek King, looking round, saw that nowhere had the war-situation changed conspicuously in favour of the Allies, it is not surprising that he should have persevered in his original opinion that the Germans were the winning team. That being so, he was naturally anxious not to be on the other side. Hence his unconstitutional overthrow of M. Venizelos, who was preparing Greece to join the Allies, and hence the consistency of his subsequent efforts to keep out of the war on the side of the Entente at all costs, while showing his personal sympathy for the Germans by allowing their agents full liberty of propaganda and action in his territory, and by doing all he could himself to obstruct and restrict our action in Macedonia. What was at the back of the King's mind in all this was the thought: "The Germans will ultimately win. When they have won I want to be able to say to them, 'I could not join you in the field; the situation in my kingdom forbade it; but this and that have I done, so far as in me lay, to help you and hinder your enemies.'"
The difference between the political short-sight of the King and the political long-sight of M. Venizelos lay simply in this,-- Venizelos looked beyond the Allies' blunders and delays and failures in the present and saw the vast resources and latent powers that would in the long run make their success inevitable. He realised that the future welfare and development of Greece would depend upon them. The King, on the other hand, could not see so far ahead. Impressed by the present strength of the Germans and by the initial failures and mistakes of the Entente, he sincerely believed that the interests of his people were united with those of the Central Powers. That belief cost him in the end his throne. These two figures, Venizelos and Constantine, therefore, were by nature irreconcilable, antipodean. Yet for months our diplomats clung with feeble obstinacy to the hope of being able to bring them together, trying to mix oil with water, to promote harmony between the wolf and the sheep-dog. And all this time Germany by her thorough propaganda work did much to strengthen the King's hand, while we did nothing at all to support Venizelos. But the faith of M. Venizelos in the Allies., which still is strong, must be considered all the more praiseworthy when you remember how Serbia and Roumania have been overrun at the very threshold of his country. It is a true remark that M. Venizelos is a European and not merely a Balkan statesman. He can take big views.
In September, 1916, M. Venizelos and his friends at Athens decided that passive protest against the unconstitutional action of the King had lasted long enough, that the country was being lulled into inertia by their own apparent acceptance of the existing state of things, and that the time had come to take a strong line. They determined to leave the capital (which was done by stealth) and proceed to Crete, where the idea of a Government independent of the King appeared in the form of the "triumvirate,"---Venizelos, Admiral Condouriotis and General Danglis.
After touring the Greek islands, which are the strongholds of his party, Venizelos came to Salonica. His arrival on October 9th was in a way a surprise. He himself did not know when he landed whether he would stay there or return to Mitylene. The question was, of course, one that depended to some extent on the views of the Allies, who might have seen disadvantages in the establishment of a Macedonian Government at their military base. But no objection was raised, and M. Venizelos, after a landing of great enthusiasm, at which General Sarrail. appeared for a moment, though unofficially, established the headquarters of the "triumvirate" in the villa which had hitherto been King Constantine's palace at Salonica. It is an ugly house, resembling a pavilion at a Shepherd's Bush Exhibition, and decorated and furnished in the abominable taste that comes of imitating German standards, which in matters of art and architecture are supreme in the Balkans, thanks to their commercial domination of that field.
Venizelos at first abstained from definite renunciation of allegiance to the King. The purpose of his independent Government was but to guide Greece into the path he considered the only one for her welfare. "We consider Greece," he said to me on October 10th, "to be a kingdom with two Governments in it, as in the case of all countries at civil war, though actual civil war is the development we are trying to avoid." The heading "Kingdom of Greece" was maintained on the Provisional Government's decrees. Venizelos, however, desired recognition by the Powers as a Government de facto, and got it in the following January, when Earl Granville and M. de Billy were appointed English and French Envoys-Plenipotentiary to the Provisional Government.
But the treacherous attack on British and French troops in Athens on December 1st changed everything.
A demand for the surrender of ten batteries of artillery by the Greek Government had not met with compliance, and the French Admiral, Dartiges du Fournet, landed men from the French and English warships to occupy Athens, on some alleged understanding with the King that there would be no opposition. The men were ambushed and fired on, the French losing eighty-three killed, and the English a smaller number. The demonstration collapsed in grotesque failure and our landing-parties were withdrawn.
It needs only a slight acquaintance with the overweening mercurial, semi-Oriental temperament of the Greek to imagine how cock-a-hoop and arrogant the epistrates or armed civilians who formed the King's supporters at once became. They had beaten Allied troops in action; the Allies had swallowed the insult meekly. They and their King, they at once concluded, were invincible. A reign of terror began against the Venizelists of Athens. Many were shot in prison; many beaten and robbed.
We were nearer to war with the Greeks on December 2nd than we had ever been, and were none too well disposed for receiving their attack. A British monitor was sent to blow up the railway line from Athens to Larissa at the top of the Lamia gulf, where it runs on culverts within range of the sea, but the order was countermanded before it could be executed. Once more King Constantine was let off with a serious talking to, which took the form of a demand that he should withdraw all his army from Thessaly, "above the strength necessary to maintain order," into the Peloponnese, south of the Corinth canal. But before this withdrawal could be begun or arrangements made for controlling the process, our position at Salonica was most awkward.
The Allied Army had just retaken Monastir. We were pressing hard upon the Bulgars, in the hope of driving them out of shell-range of the town and back to Prilep. This offensive was now stopped at once, and new positions taken up to face the fresh danger threatening our rear.
And this danger had distinct existence since we were connected with Monastir,---a point to the maintenance of which we were henceforth committed, by a single line of railway a hundred miles long. This line makes a great loop southwards at Verria, towards Old Greece, and was consequently exposed to the possibility of being cut and rendered useless by raiding-parties of the new Greek enemy.
In conformity with the turn the situation had taken, Greek royalist troops moved north in a threatening manner, and General Sarrail recalled French detachments southwards to be ready to oppose them if necessary.
The events of December 1st had, too, a great effect on M. Venizelos' attitude. "Between me and the King there is now a lake of blood," he said to me, speaking with a vehemence noticeable even above his usual energetic and emphatic manner. "Two hundred of my friends have been killed because they held different political opinions from those of the King; because they thought that Greece would do better to join with the Entente than with the Central Powers. For that they were murdered. King Constantine and I henceforth face each other across an impassable abyss. If the majority of the people of Greece should choose after the war still to keep the King as their ruler, I and my friends will have to leave the country." He was ready for the idea of war with the Royalists, should they attack the Allies. "If I had received from the Allies the material and equipment promised me when I came here," he said, "I should now be able to hold up all the royalist army with the troops of the Provisional Government alone. We promised to raise an army corps of three divisions, and even two army corps, by March, 1917, if the necessary equipment was provided. So far (December, 1916) none has been received. The one division we have raised was equipped with what we had in hand except for about one-tenth of its material. If in a week I could have rifles and uniforms, I could instantly mobilise the reservists of Crete and of the divisions of Chios, Samos and Mitylene. With these two divisions alone, we could hold up the royalist Army. Should the Entente find King Constantine's troops on its hands, that will be its own fault."
But though King Constantine never actually attacked us, he was always posing as being on the point of doing so, and by that means distracted the attention and drew off some of the strength of the Allied Army in the Balkans from its main objective---the Bulgarian and German forces in front of it. The Allied fleets were blockading the coasts of Greece all through the spring of 1917, but though this caused a certain shortage of bread, which forms a much larger part of the food of the Balkan peoples than of our own, it did not reduce the King to obedience by bringing him into danger of starvation, one reason being that a country which produces vegetables, fruits and sheep in such abundance as Greece can hardly lack seriously for food, and the other that the granaries of the country were well stocked with reserves of wheat. As these reserves dwindled, however, it became evident that the King's passive attitude was chiefly due to the fact that he was anxious to be allowed to reap the Thessalian corn crop undisturbed. Once this was garnered he would again be independent of foreign supplies for seven or eight months and could begin once more with impunity to flout the Allies. By that time, indeed, with the turn that things were taking in Russia since the Revolution, he might hope that the Germans would be able to withdraw 100,000 men from that front and send them to attack us in the Balkans, which would give him an opportunity for co-operation. The French Higher Command at Salonica and M. Venizelos both urged upon the Allied Governments the need for occupying Thessaly and seizing the corn-crop,---on payment, of course, to its owners. Not only was this a measure of self-defence, but we needed the food. The islands which had adhered to Venizelos were indeed very short of corn.
At the beginning of May the occupation of Thessaly was decided in principle by the Allied Powers, but there followed the usual period of hesitation and delay before theory was transmuted into action, and until the very day (June 10th) when the telegram authorising the operation reached General Sarrail from Paris it was always doubtful whether we should advance southwards or not.
Would the people of Thessaly support the King in opposing our occupation? Venizelos said not, and he proved to be right. When guaranteed against the royalist reprisals by the presence of Allied troops, he maintained that the majority of the inhabitants of Thessaly would adhere to his cause.
During May Sarrail concentrated troops on the frontiers of Old Greece. though it was not yet sure that he would be allowed to use them. Four regiments of cavalry, Chasseurs d'Afrique and Spahis, moved to the village of Servia near the entrance of the Sarandaporon pass. A Russian brigade was at Verrai. Annamites, Zouaves, colonial infantry and other regiments were gathered at Kozani. The Entente Governments had decided that trouble would be less likely if Greek nationalist troops did not take part in the operation. But half a battalion of English (East Yorks Regiment) were detailed to cooperate under the orders of General Venel, who commanded the Division Provisoire which had been formed for the purposes of this operation. The share of the English contingent in the occupation of Thessaly was limited, however, to coming down the railway from Ekaterini, and establishing themselves at Demirli, a mosquito-ridden spot on the plain of Pharsala, where Cæsar beat Pompey. The columns which advanced into Thessaly by road and seized the chief towns were all French, and the principal one of these I accompanied, being indeed the only Englishman who had that opportunity.
We had been waiting at Servia for a week in hot summer weather---a quaint little place called "Servia " because some Serbs had been. quartered there in the time of the Emperor Heraclius. That is one of the fascinating things about the Balkans; roads are so few among the pathless mountains that all the countless hosts that have warred here since time began have had to tread exactly in each other's footsteps. Xerxes and his invading multitude, or part of it, doubtless passed up this very valley to take the road we are expecting to move along any moment down the Sarandaporon pass. Very much the same problems, too, must in many respects have exercised the minds of those old warriors. Where is the next spring of good water? Is the mud in that bottom too deep for the waggons to pass? And the same old nuisances, too. Alexander the Great's legionaries probably ejaculated their equivalent for "Damn the flies!" quite as heartily and often as we did during that wait of ten days at Servia.
I never ate so much lamb in my life as in that week. There was but one alleged restaurant in Servia. It formed the lower story of the ramshackle "townhall," and was a dismal whitewashed room with a grimy kitchen the size of a cupboard opening off it. The staff consisted of an old Greek with that grey, faded look that never washing and never taking the clothes off eventually produces, and his fat little granddaughter, Theodora, who could actually take an order in French. Not that this required a large vocabulary, for the only dish provided by the restaurant was lamb. Every morning one sat down under the great plane tree on the terrace of beaten earth that looked down the steep and rock-strewn main street, and asked, hoping against hope for a change, "Ti echis, Theodora?"" And Theodora, disdaining to speak her own tongue to a foreigner, would reel off, in a tone of refreshing novelty, the unvarying programme, "Agneau aux fèves, agneau aux haricots, côtelettes d'agneau, foie d'agneau, agneau rôti.--- So for breakfast, lunch and dinner one ate lamb---lamb ---lamb, without even bread to relieve its monotony. I fed from every part of a lamb's anatomy at Servia except the trotters, but Theodora, when I asked for those, seemed to think I was trying to be funny and to victimise her with some European joke.
"It's all off. We shall never start. How could you expect the Allies to come to a decision about anything?" So grumbled the impatient officers of the Spahis and Chasseurs d'Afrique as they sat under the plane-tree in the evenings, drinking mastic, and cursing it, the Balkans, the delay, and the tedium of Servia with equal fervour.
And then suddenly at eleven on Sunday morning, June 10th, just as I was sitting down to lunch with a colonel of Spahis in his mess, the order came. Lunch was bolted in a flurry of final preparation, and at 3 P.M. we were off,---a seemingly endless column of cavalry with a battery of artillery in support, and two armoured cars, winding along the road at the foot of the mountains that led to the Iron Gates at the mouth of the Sarandaporon pass, the gateway of Old Greece. Five other columns besides this one had started simultaneously on their march from different points along the Greek frontier. In all, the strength which the French were devoting to this operation was:
A "provisional division" of infantry, with another division in reserve at Ekaterini;
Four regiments of cavalry;
A proportionate quantity of field artillery and some 6-inch guns.
The news which secret service agents had brought in related nothing but half-hearted preparations of opposition on the part of the Royalists. Outposts of Greek gendarmes had been watching for several days past for signs of movement on our part, from the heights on either side of the Sarandaporon pass. Throughout the afternoon and all that night the long mounted column trekked on. It passed through the wooded Sarandaporon gorge, across the plateau at the southern end of it where the Greeks defeated the Turks in 1912, and on to Elassona. As you looked back from the head of the column as the procession set out, tier above tier, on the zigzags of the descending road behind, the spectacle that you saw was one of the old warfare that has disappeared from Europe for ever., These picturesque and well-trained cavalrymen, mounted on their handsome little barbs, with carbines slung across the back and sabre thrust beneath the saddle-flap, are the type of soldier that was once the pride and the strength of armies. Their dash and determination in attack put the consummation to victory; their courage and self-sacrifice protected the defeated army in retreat. And now-they have waited in idleness and tedium for months before finding even this second-class employment of going to occupy some cornfields in a country that officially at least is not even hostile.
Elassona we reached at dawn, a picturesque little place nestling against the hillside, and looking across a plain yellow with the fast-ripening corn that we had come to seize. The population was distinctly reserved in its welcome, but showed a better disposition after it had witnessed with visible respect the arrival of the guns. Some motor-lorries accompanied the infantry, so that in case the cavalry advance guard came upon a prepared position of defence one battalion could be rushed up quickly to attack it.
Resting through the hot day at Elassona, we left again at dusk, and from the ridge of the Meluna pass, one of the points where opposition had been thought likely, we could see shining out brilliantly in the blackness of the plain below the lights of Larissa, the chief goal of our occupation. The night was pitch dark, except where the acetylene lamps of the armoured motor-cars flung a startling glare upon the road. We paced sleepily and slowly on, halting sometimes for the guns to pass a bad bit of road, and meeting with no sign of life upon the way. Tyrnavo, the only town upon the road, passed through in the small hours was as silent as if it had been deserted---not a dog in the streets and no one even at his window to see what this midnight noise of trampling hoofs and jingling bits might be.
There was still a long and monotonous ten miles to be done across the flat, corn-waving plain. I was so sleepy after two nights on the march that I nearly fell out of the saddle, and for a change put the driver of my Ford van, which was following behind, onto my horse, and took his place in the car. But driving at the pace a cavalry column walks proved, even worse. I nodded over the wheel as we crawled along, and the man who can sleep on a Ford car on a Greek road must be more than a little tired.
Then suddenly I noticed something which banished my sleepiness immediately. General Venel, commanding the whole force, drove past in his car, stopped at the head of the column, and took in Colonel de Fourtou, the officer in command of the cavalry, and then he drove on ahead towards Larissa.
I put the Ford to its best speed and followed, and at about 6 A.M. we arrived at the bridge across the river which was the entrance to Larissa.
There in the open road was waiting a small throng of which the central figure was General Bayeras, commander of the Larissa garrison. General Bayeras had had experience of this sort of situation before, for he was the general who, on orders from Athens, had handed over Rupel Fort to the Bulgarians a year before. He looked as if his present position pleased him even less. He is a short-built man, with a pointed white beard and an expression of petulance.
The French and the Greek officers saluted each other frigidly. General Bayeras began: "I have had orders," he said, " not to oppose your entry to Larissa, and I have come to meet you to consult as to what arrangements we can arrive at for the joint occupation of the town by your troops and mine."
"That arrangement would be quite impossible," replied General Venel. "I have orders to occupy the town and take the garrison prisoners. You, mon General, I must ask to consider yourself a prisoner." This ruffled General Bayeras. He got back into his car,---a big limousine of German make, driven on some appalling petrol substitute, for the importation of petrol itself had been stopped by the blockade, and the stocks in the country were all held to be sold at high price to German submarines. There the General sat and sulked a while.
Then suddenly he got out of his car, spoke a few words to General Venel, and was into it again and over the bridge at once, with Colonel de Fourtou in General Venel's car behind him. "Follow them," said General Venel to me, and accordingly I brought up the rear of this little procession, which passed through streets lined with uneasy people, their shops close-shuttered behind them. I was struck by the large proportion of young men of military age whom I noticed, not only then but throughout the day, with apparently nothing to do, and it transpired afterwards that these were, as suspicion had suggested, epistrates, or armed reservists in plain clothes, whom the royalist Government had sent up to Larissa only a day or two before. Their rifles were hidden somewhere, and if the French had been in less strength than they were, these ambiguous individuals would have dropped the pose of peaceful citizens at a simple order and joined in shooting our troops down as heartily as they had done at Athens on December 1st.
When, following General Bayeras' car, we reached the barracks, we found proof of what we had already suspected, that the rapid advance of the French column had taken the Greek garrison by surprise. They had not reckoned on two night-marches running. And so we came upon the officers of the barracks in full preparation for flight, which was to have taken place an hour later so as to escape surrendering to the French. Their baggage,---shabby trunks like the pitiful battered boxes of a little maid-of-all-work,---were corded and waiting for the cart. The officers themselves, in full field-kit, with swords and revolvers on, were gathered in front of their mess. About a hundred soldiers, with their packs already on their backs and rifles in hand, were drawn up to one side under the trees. General Bayeras got out of his car and spoke a few sentences to the officers in Greek. Then he got back into the car and drove off, with a French soldier on the box as a sign of his captivity. Colonel de Fourtou, who had been charged by General Venel with taking the surrender of the Greek officers, naturally supposed that all was now arranged, the General having admitted that Athens ordered no resistance. The Colonel had no troops with him, not even an escort; he accordingly simply told his interpreter to invite the officers to come into the principal room of the mess-building and put their swords on the table.
The Colonel and the two or three French officers with him went up to the room,---a bare, shabby place decorated with dreadful frescoes of the Bosphorus,---and waited. There was a chatter of excited Greek voices from the corridor, but no one followed us in. "Eh bien," said the Colonel mildly, "I am waiting." The interpreter came in. "Mon Colonel, they say they won't give up their swords."
"I am not here to discuss it with them," replied Colonel de Fourtou. " I have orders to take their surrender. If they won't give up their swords I shall go away and it is war."
This phrase, "Je m'en vais; c'est la guerre," became in fact a sort of leitmotif of the noisy quarter of an hour that followed. I confess I was surprised at Colonel de Fourtou's calm and self-control. I had expected more severity and less consideration.
Surrounded by excited, shouting Greek officers, led by Colonel Grivas, gesticulating with the absurd exaggeration which only a Greek can attain, he never raised his voice or changed his manner. "Eh bien, encore dix minutes. Après dix minutes, je m'en vais, c'est la guerre."
The final ten minutes ran out with the Greeks still talking at the top of their voices, and Colonel de Fourtou was already walking into his car to go away, and order an advance in force against the barracks, when the reason for the anxiety of the Greek officers to prolong the palaver became suddenly clear. Captain Bellenger, Colonel de Fourtou's staff-captain, rode up,---a soldierly figure, his face a mask of white dust after the night's march. "Mon Colonel," he exclaimed, "there's a whole battalion of Evzones escaping across the cornfields at the back of the barracks."
The scene instantly became one of stir and military bustle. "Bring up the Spahis," ordered Colonel de Fourtou, and Captain Bellenger pulled his horse round and rode off at a gallop across the flat grass drill-ground. By this time about thirty mounted men had already reached the barracks independently. "Order your men to load their carbines," said Colonel de Fourtou to their officer, "and be prepared for whatever may happen. I will send you more men in a few minutes."
The Greek officers, now gathered in a lowering but rather cowed group of about forty, heard the rattle of the bolts as the carbines were charged and watched the despatch at full speed of messengers, one to General Venel, another to bring up the armoured cars.
Then came one of the finest little spectacles I have seen in the whole war. In front of the barracks lay a perfectly flat stretch of grass about half-a-mile long. A heavy thudding from the other end of this attracted one's attention, and there, coming at full gallop, were the Spahis, the French Moroccan cavalry, with drawn swords flashing and their little Arab horses scampering like animals possessed. The swarthy-faced soldiers had drawn out their long black locks of hair from under their turbans, a thing they only do when fighting is on hand. The wild throbbing of the hoof-beats seemed to set the ground quivering; who could stand against such troops upon the charge? Alas for vanished days when picturesqueness and efficiency could be combined in war---a couple of dumpy Lewis guns would make a mouthful of that oncoming cloud of horsemen.
The regiment swerved into the drive and reined up with a scattering of gravel like shingle drawn by a wave. "A battalion of Evzones is escaping!" shouted Colonel de Fourtou to Colonel Duperthuis. "Où sont-ils?" replied the Spahi colonel eagerly. De Fourtou pointed down one of the avenues between the scattered buildings of the barracks, and the Spahis were off again like a mad hunting-field. The Chasseurs d'Afrique, a crack cavalry regiment of Frenchmen only, followed them immediately.
They had not been gone three minutes when the firing started. Rifle shots rattled out irregularly at the other end of the barracks, and a few bullets flew past us where we stood face to face with the Greek officers whose troops and ours were fighting each other only two or three hundred yards away. The situation was rather odd. There were about forty of them all fully armed and about a hundred of their men with rifles and bayonets behind them. Our group consisted only of five or six French officers with some troopers. As a matter of fact, the French infantry had necessarily been left so far behind by the forced march of the cavalry that if the Greek garrison had stood its ground it would not have been greatly outnumbered for some hours to come. At any rate, the chance of Colonel de Fourtou and his staff being suddenly fired on where they stood seemed so likely that I turned to tell my young English driver to take the car out of the danger area. He was only consoled for leaving the neighbourhood of the skirmish by the fact of a French officer demanding his aid to go and fetch the armoured motor-cars which were delayed through some misdirection, and he drove off, at the full speed a Ford can achieve, with a Frenchman sitting with a drawn revolver at his side, in case the Greek reservists in the town should have taken the firing as a signal to start operations.
The armoured cars made a visible impression on the Greek officers when they at last lumbered through the barracks; and soon their machine-guns could be heard at work, though at a greater distance than the earlier shooting, upon the fleeing Evzones.
Meanwhile an energetic French major had disarmed the Greek soldiers in front of us by shouting in an imperative manner and knocking the rifles out of the hands of any who hesitated to obey.
It was at this juncture that we noticed that two of the Greek officers who had been most prominent during the palaver about surrender, which had been interrupted by the discovery of the treacherous withdrawal of the troops, were missing. And it was not long before one of them, Colonel Grivas, was brought in a prisoner. He had slipped away from the rest, had had his horse saddled and gone to join the troops who were fighting our men; he had even fired on the Spahis when they arrested him. Colonel de Fourtou told him that he could not understand how an officer could dishonourably start fighting in the middle of a peaceful parley, and sent him to the cells. Colonel Frangas, another fire-eater, was captured later. All this time little bands of rounded-up Evzones and men of the other regiment of the garrison were being brought in, together with news of the French losses. Two French officers were killed and a third died later. Seven or eight men had been killed and three officers and twenty-five men were wounded. This fighting all took place among the standing corn which spreads into the far distance without a break over the flat plain behind the barracks. The armoured cars following the tracks through the corn chased the fugitives for six miles. Going after them the same way one saw the Spahis strung out in a long line, beating for hidden Evzones through the wheat, which bent before their horses' breasts in yellow waves. For it was by lying ambushed in the corn that the Evzones caused most of the French losses. The cunning and deliberation of their action appeared in the incident of the tumulus, where the Spahis lost two officers killed. A little way back from the bar racks is a small mound about twelve feet high, rising out of the corn. On top of it an insignificant little practice trench had been dug, some three feet deep. When they found that the French were after them, some of the Evzones put their tasselled caps on the parapet of this trench and then lay down in the thick corn all round. A party of Spahis drew near and seeing the caps, as it were of men standing in the trench, rode at the mound full gallop. The Evzones held their fire until they were only ten yards away, then let fly a volley from their ambush, but I do not think that any of the Greeks remained alive more than a few minutes after their feat.
This was the only opposition to the French occupation of Thessaly. Nor was it vested with any. reprisals by the French. The population of Larissa fully expected to see at least Colonel Grivas and Colonel Frangas shot in the town square. But nothing worse happened to them or to any of their officers than the descent to Salonica as prisoners.
Volo was the next town of Thessaly to be occupied. It had been a centre of the business of supplying submarines, from which its inhabitants had drawn great profits. German submarines had been so much at home there that they used to come into the port and the officers would come ashore for lunch.
A public meeting had been held at Volo on our approach to advocate resistance to the Allies. Reservists had been brought into the town. There were concealed stocks of arms, even. it was said of machine-guns. So that preparations were made by the French for a concentration at Velestino, five miles away, before undertaking the advance on the town, and the armoured cars, always a powerful moral factor, set out from Larissa to assist.
There is a road marked as "good" on the maps across that thirty miles of almost unbroken cornfield from Larissa to Volo, but actually it is a rough, unmetalled track. There had been a heavy thunder storm before the armoured cars started in the evening and they stuck in the mud. I left them behind and went on, but my own headlights failed, I lost the track and had to spend the night where 1. was, so that it was not until eight o'clock next morning that I reached Volo, the time set for the French troops to arrive there. I found, however, that the Commandant of the battalion which formed the first contingent of the French force had entered the town the afternoon before without waiting for reinforcements to join him, and French pickets were already established at the entrance of the town.
The volte-face made by the townspeople of Volo in their attitude towards the Allies was characteristic of the quick-change of political opinions that occurred throughout Thessaly. In one and the same week there was on June 12th a meeting to denounce the Allies and support King Constantine, and then on the 15th,---the French having occupied Volo on the 13th,---there was a meeting to denounce King Constantine and support the Allies, some of the promoters on the platform being identical at the two meetings.
French flags appeared on every side in Volo immediately after the occupation. Failing other emblems of the Entente, a tobacconist on the sea-front placarded his shop-window with coloured portraits of Sir Douglas Haig, General Smuts and Sir John Jellicoe, cut from a stray English magazine. The local paper which had been denouncing the occupation of Thessaly a few days before, now called upon the population to join in celebrating its "liberation from the tyranny of the King." A stranger to the Greek temperament might indeed have been astonished that a town apparently hostile to King Constantine should have remained so long in his full allegiance. Those citizens whose antecedents were too compromising for this deathbed conversion had fled for refuge into the rocky peninsula which forms the north side of the Gulf of Volo, paying as much as £10 for a cart to take them there.
The policy of the iron hand in the velvet glove was meanwhile adroitly applied by the French in Volo. While the regimental band gave concerts on the promenade in the afternoon a proclamation indicating fourteen distinct ways in which the inhabitants might get themselves shot through resistance to the French, appeared on the walls of the town.
That the expressed hostility of the people of Volo for the Allies never materialised before the French arrived into physical violence against the two English households and the few Frenchmen who were the only representatives of the Entente in the town is due in great part to what may be called the "hypnotic naval treatment" applied by the R.N.R. captain of an armed auxiliary which anchored in the port just as feelings were beginning to run high.
He was advised in a rather apprehensive manner by the French consul that an anti-Ally demonstration was about to be held on the sea-front, and asked if he could not have a "landing-party" ready to protect the lives of the subjects of the Entente, if necessary. The small ship's company was not strong enough for enterprises of the magnitude of landing-parties to be undertaken, but the captain asked exactly where on the quay the meeting would take place. It was to be held after dark, for in Volo every one sleeps all the hot afternoon, and the evening is the liveliest time of the day. So about 10 P.M. the anti-Ally demonstration was in full swing. Excited, stubbly chinned Royalists had begun one after another to address the crowd. Who were these dastardly aliens who were violating the territory of Greece? they asked. "Remember the glorious victories of the Balkan wars. Remember how these same foreigners were drugged at Athens on December 1st. Zito, King Constantine! Curse Venizelos! Down with the dogs of Allies!" The submarine caterers and government-paid roughs, fortified by a series of glasses of raki, were full of sound and fury, when, as suddenly as a blow, there shot out of the velvety blackness of the Ægean night a dazzling white beam of illumination which fell full upon the meeting,---and stayed there without flickering. It came from the searchlight of the English ship, and its unwavering stare seemed to be looking into the face of every man of them as if to see who would speak next. But words died away on their lips. The unique spectacle was witnessed of a crowd of Greeks all silent. The diehards who had been most vociferous a moment before found a strange difficulty in uttering more curses; the worst desperado of a royalist. last-ditcher ceased to advocate armed resistance to the Allies and fixed his disturbed gaze on the persistent shaft of light that from its unseen source held them like an apparition from the next world. They simply could not talk with that thing staring at them. They fidgeted and smiled uneasily and whispered to each other (as if they might be beard as well as seen), and then, individually and inconspicuously, they slipped away into the grateful obscurity of the surrounding darkness.
After that, the searchlight was simply master of the situation. The sea-front of Volo, where the Allies had been so often eaten up in the mouths of royalist blow-hards, became as deserted as the promenade of a third-rate watering-place in the off season. Royalists whose consciences were only lightly burdened and those who could not go without their evening raki, did indeed assemble decorously the following evening at the tables in front of the chief cafe. There the searchlight left them alone at first, but suddenly, its suspicions being roused, it flashed a sudden glance at them. Then a curious but significant thing happened. Nearly all the Greeks at the café, including the fire-eating Royalists of the night before, rose to their feet and took off their hats. It was a confession of defeat. The searchlight had been too much for their nerves; it had broken their morale, and in saluting that little converted Irish excursion-steamer they were uncovering to the watchful determination of the British Navy, the spirit of which she represented just as fully as any super-dreadnought in the North Sea.
Trikkala, Karditsa and other towns in the Thessaly corn-area were occupied by French troops at the same time as Volo, and the Italians showed especial energy in co-operating with this movement, carrying the extension of their sphere of military influence even to Grevena and Janina.
The British detachment,---500 picked men of the East Yorkshire Regiment,---who had come from Doiran, were at Demirli, a flat, featureless, mosquito-ridden railway junction in the middle of the monotonous cornland. They supplied patrols which visited the villages around in conjunction with the French Spahis, to show the peasants that infantry as well as cavalry was available for the suppression of any resistance.
Searches for arms and the seizure of them had been going on since the first entrance into Thessaly and before I left ten days later 30,000 weapons of all sorts had been collected. Such a motley assortment of shooting-irons could not be found outside a museum. They varied from long Albanian flintlock guns of the eighteenth century to modern cavalry carbines, and from horse-pistols to automatics.
The occupation of Thessaly by French troops brought to an end some other Allied activities which had been going on there inconspicuously but actively for over a year. The story of them is more like the plot of an American crook cinema-film than anything I have heard in the war, but they were none the less most valuable to our cause, and not unattended by risk to the officers who conducted them.
These were the measures by which we countered the German Secret Service in Greece and did our best to suppress the supplying of petrol to enemy submarines. The military officers who were working against the Germans in Greece met them with their own methods; the enemy was subtle and secret; so were we; they were ruthless, and so, when occasion demanded, we did not hesitate to use severity too.
One of the principal duties of these Allied officers was to stop couriers who frequently went, or tried to go, from Athens into the Bulgarian lines, taking spy reports and information of all kinds useful to the enemy which had been collected in Greece. These men, disguised as peasants, or sometimes peasants themselves, would travel by road and contrive to slip across to the enemy through our lines by little-known tracks across the mountains in Albania.
The Germans were prepared to pay big money to men who would get these despatches of theirs through. The only way we could stop the system was by making it so risky a business that no one could be found to attempt it. A French officer who was employed for months in hunting down enemy couriers told me that the price offered for one journey rose in the end to £2,000,---part paid on starting, part on delivery of the despatches. The way the French officers charged with preventing this information from reaching the enemy used to work was this. They had a local intelligence service of their own, recruited chiefly among roadside innkeepers. These men would inform the Allied officer of the arrival at their establishments of any one they suspected of being an enemy courier. "The man is about thirty; black hair and moustache; five feet eight inches tall; wearing a European brown suit, much worn, and a soft hat; says he is a commercial traveller for an Athens cutlery business. He is sharing an araba, a country travelling carriage, with three others. It is drawn by three horses-two bays and a black. They will start at 5 A.M. to-morrow along the road for Korytza."
When the Allied officer got such a report as this, he secretly collected three or four of the unofficial "police" whom he had in his pay. These fellows were sometimes Cretans and consequently convinced Venezelists, who wanted on principle to work for the Allies; sometimes just tough customers willing to do anything for money for any one. Our man would give the slow-moving araba time to get well out into a lonely part of the country and then start off after it with his men in a Ford car. After an hour or so along the deserted road they would catch sight of a fully laden carriage crawling along ahead at a slow trot. The car, overtaking it, passed without even slackening speed, but as it drove by the Allied officer had a good look at its occupants. Yes, the wanted man was there.
The Ford passed on in a cloud of dust. If the enemy courier had had qualms of uneasiness at the unusual sight of four civilians in a motor-car, he was reassured. They were not looking for him anyway; all was well. But a mile or so further on, at a turn of the road, those same four men with drawn revolvers would spring out suddenly from behind the rocks. "Halt! That man in the brown suit get out with all his luggage. Now the rest of you drive on and don't try to come back, or there'll be trouble."
The companions of the now trembling German agent were always too terrified to think of refusing obedience. They were only too glad to save their own skins, and hurried their wretched team of horses on, leaving him in our hands.
Once or twice the German military attaché in Athens who despatched these men did receive an intimation that all had not gone well with them. Each courier carried a receipt to be signed by the enemy staff officer to whom he should deliver his despatches. That receipt occasionally arrived back at the German Legation in Athens signed with an initial and the words "offlcier du controle allié.
And no less romantic work was being done at the same time by the officers of the British patrol boats which were trying to stop the supply of petrol to German submarines by Greek fishermen. Night after night, British naval officers, who let their beards grow straggly and untrimmed for the purpose, would be rowed ashore to a deserted part of the beach in the disguise of a Greek peasant, and with an interpreter would sit about in native coffee-houses listening for stray references to stores of petrol, or meeting agents of their own to receive reports. They found petrol in most unlikely places; more often their informers would take them to hiding-places where petrol had been. Once it was in a tiny little chapel on a lonely hillside, and the space under the altar smelt so strongly of the petrol that the priest had been concealing there that the stock could only have been removed an hour or so before.
" I was coming back one day from a hunt among the islands after a submarine that had been reported," begins a story of one of the captains of one of these patrol ships, "when I caught sight of a motor-boat a good way out at sea making for the Greek shore. I came up with it and I saw that in it, alone, was a man whom I had long known to be supplying petrol to the Germans, but whom I had never been able to catch in the act. I realised at once what he had been doing. He had been out with a full cargo of petrol to meet a submarine at a lonely rendezvous, and he was now on the way back. The thing was as clear as the daylight, but what proof had I on which to arrest him? He probably had his pockets stuffed with money that the skipper of the submarine had paid him, but it would be Greek money and would not compromise him. If I arrested him without full proof I should only get my hair curled and the scoundrel would probably be paid compensation. So I just steered straight for him. If there were a collision and he sank, it would be a regrettable accident for which I should take full responsibility---with a light conscience when I remembered all the poor fellows of ours he had helped to drown for money. He saw me coming and knew what I was after. He altered course just in time and my ship shot past, with the wash rocking him. I turned and chased him and during the next half-an-hour that petrol merchant had more excitement than in all his life before.
"I was faster and much bigger, but this little open boat could of course turn much quicker. It was like a bull chasing a mongrel. We made full speed after him, while his motor-boat with wide-open throttle did its best seven knots through the water and he sat there with his ugly face turning white over his shoulder as he took terrified glances astern. Just as my bows were on top of him he would put his helm hard over and scurry off on another course with us coming round in a circle after him and closing upon him again. It took him thirty-five minutes to get back to the lonely little creek where he kept his boat, and he had enough narrow escapes of a watery end in that time to scare him out of the petrol-running business for good. I never heard of him trying to sell another single tin to a submarine."
General Sarrail came from Salonica to visit Larissa and Volo on June 20th, and had a welcome of apparently thorough cordiality. At Volo 4,000 people gathered cheering in front of the Town Hall. Some of the most lovely fruit I have ever seen was offered to us there, brought by young girls, dressed in white, of that fleeting and exotic, but remarkable beauty that you sometimes find in Greece. The people's friendly attitude was a sign of the success of the long-debated, long-hesitated operation of occupying Thessaly.
Such is the most plain and straightforward story of our relations with the Greeks and the occupation of Thessaly by the Allies. What secret reasons of state or what varied motives may have controlled the development of the Allies' action in all these matters, hastening or retarding it, I have not discussed here. I know that in Balkan affairs especially an obvious and self-evident reason should always be received with doubt as the primary cause of any event. I have heard more than one interpretation of the course which the history of our relation with the Greeks actually followed. There is much, indeed, that is mysterious in this complicated Balkan situation which has resulted in a vastly expensive Allied force being held up for two years in a barren region at the other end of Europe without accomplishing anything proportionate towards the aims of the war. The cryptic influence of the Jew; the restraint upon strategy imposed by the Parliamentary politics of some Allied countries; the alleged existence of financial aims to be gratified in Greece,---these are some of the explanations, probable and improbable, that you will hear from people who profess to be acquainted with the facts of the situation. One could not with propriety examine into these motives even if one would, and my own opinion is that until all the documents now held secret in different countries, Allied and the enemy, are revealed, there will be very few men indeed who know the inside story of the Allies' doings in the Balkans these two years past. And meanwhile, if one turns one's back upon the recondite, the simplest explanation seems to fit the facts as well as any: that the Greek king was hostile, even if only passively hostile, to us for the reasons I have given; that General Sarrail believed, and had sufficient apparent reason for believing, that the rear of his army was in danger from the Greeks; and that the province of Thessaly was occupied by the Allies to remove this danger. Other motives may have tended to confirm the choice of the course which was acted upon, but it seems to me at least that the apparent and ostensible reasons for that choice were enough in themselves.
The leading factor of the future of our Balkan army still remains a moot question. Just as the failure of the Greeks to keep their treaty pledges and their plighted word handicapped and limited the Salonica Expedition at its beginning, so the tardy atonement of the Greek nation for that defection may yet advance the successful end of the enterprise.
The value to the Allied cause of the Greeks as soldiers is increased by two facts: First, they are soldiers on the spot; you have not to go through the slow, costly and risky process of shipping them out there first. Secondly, as regards supplies, they can to a great extent be fed from the resources of their own country, since they are already living on those resources as civilians.
As fighting material they are not at all bad. The French Staff officers attached to them, who do not distribute praise lightly, are well satisfied with the way the divisions already at the front have settled down. Of course, they have much to learn, like all raw troops in this war. Their own idea that the Balkan campaigns had proved them warriors by instinct as well as experience brought them one or two rude shocks at the beginning.
As regards personnel, the Greeks naturally lacked good generals, capable of commanding such a campaign as this. There are, however, some thoroughly efficient officers of high regimental and staff rank who have received their military education in France and Germany. The company officers and N.C.O.'s are full of goodwill, but, as I say, untrained. For educational purposes each Greek regiment when it goes up to the front is for a time linked with a French one.
When I was in Thessaly with the French troops the peasants were saying, "Rather than go to war I would take refuge in the mountains." But it is in the character of the Greek to accept authority without much trouble if it is firmly enforced, and M. Venizelos will probably be able gradually to put his army into the field on condition that the Allies make up the defects in its existing equipment.
Table of Contents