Lest we Forget the British Salonika Force

I found myself in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) without any money to take the ferry across the Adriatic to Italy where I had a return air ticket back to London from Catania. I would be able to hitch across northern Greece and then round southern Italy’s instep but money was definitely needed for the ferry…

It was the end of my first truly epic journey and I’d travelled through twelve countries, including Syria, Iraq and Kuwait to get to the hippy Shangri-La of Kathmandu. Now a little thinner but a lot wiser I was raring to get home and start my year at uni.

The British consul at Thessaloniki was very courteous although he gave me a ticking off about all those young people that want to travel round the world without proper financial preparations. He arranged money to be cabled to me from home but warned me that it might take a couple of days for it to arrive.

My grandfather was still alive, although increasingly suffering from dementia. I also remembered that as a boy scout I’d helped assist the British Salonika force veterans of the campaign at Horse Guards parade. My grandfather had been a member of that contingent – a diminishing but still stalwart band, alas now all long since vanished.

These thoughts came to my mind today since the Balkan field of military operations formed another part of that human tragedy called World War One and, in particular, of the start of the bloodiest battle of them all, the battle of the Somme where over a million lost their lives on both sides and where the flower of a whole generation was lost. (This battle is eloquently described by expert writer and guide on these matters Stephen Liddell in his post at https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2016/06/29/the-battle-of-the-somme-100-years-on/ )

Stranded in Salonika, I slept under the walls of that ancient town. I also visited some very beautiful byzantine churches and the iconic watch tower on the sea front.

(My remaining photographs of Thessaloniki )

I also discovered that there was a military cemetery (Mikra) just to the north of the city.

I walked to the cemetery with the intention of taking a few photographs for my grandfather in the hope that it might wake him up a little from the dementia he was fast slipping into. After all, old memories, however painful, are able to achieve some kind of therapy, I thought.

The cemetery was very large and contained the remains of First World War soldiers from Serbia, France and Italy. Always open, I spent a night there among the tombs of the fallen. It was an eerie but very poignant experience.

What were the British doing in Salonika anyway? The Greek Prime Minister Venizelos had invited three French divisions and the 10th Irish Division from Gallipoli in October 1915. These forces were joined by Commonwealth, Italian and Russian troops. (How ironic that Italian forces were then involved as Axis forces against Greece in the next war – yet another tragic episode so eloquently written about in that magical-historical-fiction book ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’.)

The Greeks were worried about an invasion from the Ottoman Empire, which was then an ally of Germany and Austro-Hungary. The Greeks, however, did not commit themselves to the allied side until August 1916 when revolution broke out in Salonika and the Greek national army joined in the slaughter of World War One on the allied side.

You’ll remember how the tinder that began the bloodiest war the world has ever known was the assassination by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, of Franz Ferdinand, the Austria-Hungarian archduke, in Sarajevo.

Serbia was invaded by the Hapsburgs with the assistance of Bulgaria and an allied force had to be sent out to prevent the total collapse of Serbia. (Again another irony – how the allies of Serbia changed in that bloody part of their history at the end of the last millennium…)

Salonika (Thessaloniki) became the base of the British Salonika Force under the command of General Bryan Mahon; succeed by Lt General George Milne, as part of the allied effort to defend Serbia. The Salonika base housed headquarters, barracks and eighteen hospitals for war casualties.

Actually, the real threat came from pro-German Bulgaria which still had a corridor of land linking it to the Aegean (lost after the Versailles peace treaty).

By the end of the war there were one thousand eight hundred Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery in addition to French, Serbian, Russian and Italian combatants

These are the faded pictures I took of the cemetery all those years back.

Regrettably, my grandfather was too far gone to really react to those photographs. Perhaps, the pain of those years was anyway too harsh for him to remember much.

In any case, although in an often forgotten theatre of conflict in World War One, the British Salonika Force should never be forgotten. My grandfather survived the slaughter and without that survival I would not be here to write this unlike, so tragically those potential grandfathers who lost their lives, loves and hopes in such a useless and unnecessary but sadly so humanly endemic aberration that is war.


(Dead soldier in the snow on the Salonika front, 1916)