The Salonika Front. Notwithstanding the mosquitoes, the inevitable French-British rivalries, the on-again off-again Greek politics and nearly three years of launching futile attacks against strong defenses held by a lightly-regarded adversary, ultimately this was where the end of World War I began.
German propaganda had called the Salonika Front “the greatest internment camp in the world”. A good friend of mine called it ‘a sideshow’. Eight French, six British, one Italian Divisions and two Russian Brigades were tied up here and unavailable for service elsewhere. The noted military historian S.L.A. Marshall has called the three-year struggle here “without a doubt the most ponderous and illogical campaign of World War I”. The expedition was conceived to shore up the Serbian Army in its stand against the German and Bulgarian invasion of October 1915, but that effort proved to be too little too late, and the remnant of the Serbian Army had to extricate itself by retreating through Albania (a neutral country) at a considerable cost in lives and material.
On a promontory in northern Greece overlooking Lake Doiron (Dojron in Macedonian), named ‘Colonial Hill’ by the British Salonika Force (BSF) because the position was first established by French colonial units, there is today the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) BSF Monument and the Memorial to the Missing. The location is remote, about 45 miles north of Thessaloniki, Greece, which in the WW1 era the British called Salonika (or Salonica).
This site is unusual in that it combines a force monument with a memorial. There is also a CWGC Doiron Cemetery, but it is situated below the hill several hundred yards away. The hill itself was a part of the British second line from 1916 to 1918.
The Memorial site was designed by the Scottish architect Sir Robert Lorimer KBE (1864-1929) as a part of his commission to plot all of the CWGC sites in the Salonika Theater of operations. Lorimer was known for his work in Scots Baronial and Arts and Crafts styles, and was the creator of the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle.
The monument is a pylon made of blocks of reddish-brown local stone that features upon ledges two striking recumbent lions sculpted by Birmingham-based Walter Gilbert (1871-1946), who also contributed the sculpture ‘Neptune and his Horses’ to the fountain which sits today on W. 47th St. in the Plaza District of Kansas City, Missouri. The Doiron lions aren’t identical; the one that faces the Bulgarian line is defiant while the one that faces the rear is mournful. The main inscription on the monument reads, in both English and Greek:
‘In glorious memory of 418 officers and 10,282 other ranks of the British Salonika Force who died in Macedonia and Serbia 1915–1918 and to commemorate 1,979 of all ranks who have no known grave but whose names are on the panels. They did their duty’.
Around the monument there are four cornice blocks to the pylon, two low walls facing the lions and a gated boundary wall encloses the entire site. The names of the missing are inscribed on marble panels set into the stone work. In the original design all of the names were listed on the four sides of the cornices. However, since 1926 193 more names have been added to the memorial, requiring additional panels to be mounted on the low walls, bringing the total commemorated to 2,172.
This is the only monument to the BSF anywhere, even though the BSF wasn’t small; official statistics say the peak force size was 285,021 and the number of personnel who served in the area was 404,207. Nevertheless, the Salonika Campaign has been largely forgotten, in fact the Doiron monument had to be paid for by private donation, mostly from the survivors, the regimental associations and the families of the fallen.
Nearly one million men served in the French-led Armée d’Orient, of which the BSF was a part, and it was the Allies’ most polyglot force, also including French, Moroccan, Malagasian, Senegalese, Annamese, Foreign Legionnaires, Serbs, Russians, Italians, Greeks and even some Indians. In the course of the campaign the Allies suffered 165,800 combat fatalities (75% were Serbian), while Bulgaria lost 76,729.
The Salonika campaign experienced the highest disease rate of the war. Malaria was endemic in the valleys and both sides found it impossible for to man low lying front-line positions during the warmer months. At one point in 1917 20 percent of the BSF was in a hospital, and in the course of the campaign the BSF recorded 481,262 hospitalizations for disease, compared to 18,187 for wounds.
On September 14th, 1918 a massive Allied offensive was launched, and while the British-Greek assault on the east side of the front at Doiron was stopped cold, to the west in the Monastir region the Serbs, the French and the Italians achieved a complete breakthrough. French colonial cavalry dashed forth and cut the main railroad line at Skopje, making any reinforcement by the Germans impossible. With mutiny spreading in their forces, the Bulgarians laid down their arms on Sept. 30th. The Serbs and the French then advanced 375 miles in five weeks, liberating Belgrade on Nov. 3rd, and were poised to cross the Danube into Hungary when the new Hungarian government surrendered that same day. Meanwhile, units of the BSF were advancing across Thrace towards Constantinople, and the Ottoman Empire capitulated on Oct. 26th.
It had come unglued for the Central Powers.