Salonika & the Macedonian Campaign

Most people agree that the Macedonian Campaign and the British Salonika Force were rather forgotten after, and even during, WWI.  Throughout the conflict, received wisdom was that the war would be won or lost on the Western Front.  Indeed on the day that Frank started his diary, The Times carried an interesting report:  It stated that the USA had declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire but had decided not to declare war on either Turkey or Bulgaria. Its justification was that the American war efforts would focus upon the Western Front and neither nation was represented there.¹

The Side-Show

Just before the  war ended, the Bishop of London wrote an open letter to The Times asking that the contribution to the war effort of the British Salonika Force should not be dismissed as a ‘side-show’.² AJP Taylor also used this terminology when referring to Macedonia and other foreign campaigns. He went on: ‘None of the politicians looked at a detailed map before advocating their ‘side show’. They were clearly ignorant that Gallipoli had steep cliffs and Salonika a background of mountains.’ ³ Taylor was really making the point that the selection of some of the ‘side shows’ was arbitrary.

However, the Salonika campaign had started with clear intentions in autumn 1915.  The Germans needed to open up a supply route to help their Turkish allies.  To do this they decided to knock Serbia out of the war.  In this, the Germans found a new and ready ally in Bulgaria, still smarting from the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.  The French and British wanted to prevent this from happening but were too late.  They were just starting to arrive in Salonika in force when the Bulgarians pushed what was left of the Serbian army into the sea (they retreated to Corfu).  Montenegro and the newly created Albania also fell to the Austrian forces.

The Campaign

After this failure, Britain initially advocated withdrawal.  Ultimately the Allies stayed under the command of the French.  It was a difficult theatre in which to operate. All the infrastructure needed for modern warfare had to build from scratch. The only route for the long supply lines was through the U-boat infested Mediterranean.  A unique combination of the weather and the terrain restricted all-out fighting to spring and autumn.  Despite this, casualty rates were high, but only 5% were combat-related.  The British Salonika Force recorded 481,000 non-battle casualties, of which one third were malarial.†  The Allies’ host, Greece, was varyingly seen as marginally supportive to openly hostile. There were many rumours of a resurgent, German-leaning King coming out of exile. Overall, the Germans crowed that Salonika was ‘their largest  internment camp’ containing over half a million Allied troops.³

Through much of the rest of the War, British politicians were driven to defend their continued presence in Macedonia. In this they were luke-warm.  In March 1918, The Guardian reported that Andrew Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer,  ‘… went on to strike a balance between the profits and losses of the Salonika expedition, which, if lacking in enthusiasm, was not without its consolations.’ He expanded: ‘If our enemies possessed Greece and had her harbours at the disposal of their submarines, it is not too much to say that it would have been … almost impossible to keep up our communications with Egypt.  That was a sufficient justification for the action we had taken and for the maintenance of the forces in Salonika.’‡

Contribution to Victory

Ultimately the Allied victory in Salonika against the Bulgarians in September 1917 was the beginning of the end for the Central Powers. On September 29th, the Bulgarians sued for peace and withdrew from the war.  The Allies continued to advance through Macedonia and reached the Danube by early November. Their victories help persuade Germany to sue for peace.

Regardless, within a year of victory, books were being published by veterans of this theatre with titles such as ‘My Balkan Campaign; The Salonika Sideshow’.

References & further reading

¹ The Times, December 8th, 1917

² The Times, November 8th, 1918

³ ‘The First World War: An Illustrated History’ by AJP Taylor (Penguin Books)

† ‘History of the Great War – Medical Services: Casualties & Medical Statistics of the Great War’ by TJ Mitchell and GM Smith (HMSO, London, 1931) page 187

‡ The Guardian, March 8th, 1918