January 19, 2006
BOOK REVIEW PART I
Reviewed by Christopher Deliso
Rescuing long-forgotten details of the First World War in the Balkans, this official monograph of the British government (one part of an extensive series commissioned to document each theater of operations) is indispensable for historians, and indeed is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the Balkans during the Great War.
Drawing on an impressive range of primary sources, Military Operations Macedonia is a very able synthesis (if one affected by the Modernist sentiments of its day) of the political, logistic and strategic decisions that influenced the course of the campaign in the Balkans, and specifically in Aegean Macedonia, a triangular theater between Bitola and Dojran with its axis in Thessaloniki.
Although obviously reflecting the British point of view and largely devoted to the British contributions to the war, Military Operations Macedonia analyzes throughout the moves and counter-moves of all the other players in the field, including the French, Italians, Greeks, Germans and Bulgarians.
Although we tend to recommend most books that are reviewed, there is not enough that can be said about the present work. We give it a wholehearted two thumbs up and recommend it to any and all having an interest in the period.
An Impressive Range of Sources
With that classical erudition and precision that have always marked British scholarly ventures, the compiler of Military Operations Macedonia (the late Captain Cyril Falls) sets about his task by consulting British records and those of other combatant countries. These include official military histories of France, Germany and Austria, as well as other memoirs of active military men who took part in the operations. In addition to the 20 printed sources consulted, Falls also circulated drafts of the text among some 200 British officers who had taken part in the Macedonian campaign.
This painstaking attention to detail paid dividends, as it allowed the author to provide a blow-by-blow account of the war from multiple perspectives, set firmly within the greater context of far-ranging events taking place simultaneously in other theaters.
Style and Synthesis
Indeed, despite the sheer mass of information considered, the narrative of Military Operations Macedonia is presented in a lucid, straightforward manner that succeeds in presenting and analyzing the decisions made by British combatants in the context of larger events, including the political and other constraints under which they labored. Thus to some extent the book is also interesting as a study of strategy and tactics. We should also remember that one of the reasons why the narrative is “light” in a certain sense is of course because for contemporary readers (that is, of 1933) the events of the “Great War” were only too recent and thus widely remembered.
Thus a lot of events that are now forgotten or obscure are passed over in silence, but this should not prove a real hindrance to the attentive reader willing to do a little side research on peripheral events mentioned.
Obviously, this 72 year-old work is a tad dated, but in some of its presumptions this can seem amusing or even charming, depending on the reader’s point of view. The revealing opening description of the topography and place-names of northern Greece, highly reflective of the romantic Modernist view and almost aspiring to the poetic, has a lot to say about both the British mindset and the Macedonia that was then:
“…journeying by rail northward from Athens, the traveller is borne by Helicon, by Parnassos, through the vale of Tempe below the peak of Ossa, and along the shoreward flank of Olympos. He passes through the birthplace of the fairest and most splendid mythology ever conceived, the finest source of inspiration to the poetry of all ages. As he continues on his way, Olympos behind him, Greek names, lovely as music, still accompany him, and still lofty peaks and bold ridges, with pine-woods and flowering shrubs on their flanks and green valleys between, look down upon the bright waters of the Aegean. Names and scenery alike still seem to belong to Hellas and to accord with its legacy of history and myth.
Yet thenceforward even upon the shore west of the isle of Thasos, names like Olympos, Aponomi, Kassandra and Athos are mingled with those of the harsher Turkish tongue; east of Thasos the names are all Turkish. If he goes north from Salonika Slav names appear, holding divided sway with the Turkish, having driven out the Greek. He is reminded that Macedonia, not Greek in origin, has been mainly Slav under Turkish rule for hundreds of years” (p 1).
The Beginning of the Great War: Serbia
The book continues after its flowery introduction to consider briefly the events leading up to the allied occupation of Thessaloniki. Chief among these are the two Serbian-Austrian campaigns, the first of which saw Serbia humiliate and push back the Austrians with their characteristic Inat, the second of which saw bloody revenge that drove the Serbs to flee to the Adriatic and thence to Corfu where they regrouped before being sent to Thessaloniki the following spring.
The author marvels at the first stage of the war, which pitted the two armies against one another on the Drina in September 1914. In the course of 16 days, the Austrians suffered 30,000 casualties; “…there can have been few bloodier battles in the course of the war,” he concludes (p. 13).
Indeed, today’s readers, sensitive to the sheer folly and waste of war, must be struck by the colossal casualties of the Great War – and at how this was a relative non-issue then. Now, in just over two years of fighting in Iraq, huge outcry has been generated by American losses of approximately 1,500 soldiers. Falls describes several battles in the Macedonian theater in which the same number of casualties occurred in only a day.
In his narrative, the author does do a considerable service in providing graphic reminders of the miseries of war and life in camp. We hear of everything from the usual bayonetings to gas attacks and malaria. Austrian soldiers in Serbia are described as being “bootless and in rags” (p. 16).
British soldiers in the Strumica area, devastated by the cold, are outfitted in uniforms that are so frozen they “split like boards,” and have to stay walking all night just to stay alive (p. 64). Throughout, the sheer pointless of war is reiterated through detailed descriptions of battles in which a few feet of ground might be lost, retaken and lost again, all at the cost of hundreds or even thousands of casualties. The spectre of trench warfare is time and again blamed for the high casualty rates.
The second chapter, entitled “The Crushing of Serbia,” describes the successful Austrian-Bulgarian campaign that drove the Serbian Army to the Adriatic in November 1915. The protecting ranks were forced to leave behind “…the thousands of women and children who had accompanied them hitherto, but who were now dying in great numbers and could go no further” (p. 34).
The remainder of the chapter considers how the concomitant Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia swung British foreign policy, then concerned with Gallipoli and other frontiers, to send troops to Thessaloniki and nurse the Serbians back to health. And this discussion leads to the beginning of one of the books most vexing enduring themes – the relations of the Allied powers with Greece, then split between the Royalist factions answering to King Constantine and the liberals under the larger-than-life, Cretan-born Eletfherios Venezelos. This civil strife and resulting balancing act would prove one of the key influencing factors on the Allied campaign in Macedonia.
The Morass of Interventionism
Modern-day Western critics of Balkan designs on neighboring territories and intractable, age-old disputes would do well to consider their own legacy of feeding such discontent. An example is the brief account provided (on pp.24-26) of the overtures made to Bulgaria in 1914 to win its support for the Allies through vague future promises of mostly Macedonian territories that would, according to the plan, be extracted amicably from neighboring Greece, Serbia and Turkey after the dust had settled and the war been won.
Having grown mistrustful of such empty promises from allies in the past, Bulgaria naturally enough chose to fatefully throw in its lot with the Central Powers. But the brazenness and desperation of the Allied overtures really come through, and serve as yet another proof of the long legacy of meddling that has characterized the sanctimonious Western powers in the Balkans.
The book mentions several such examples throughout, closing on the most extreme of all, the forced abdication of the Greek King Constantine by the Allied powers in June 1917.
Today’s reader may also marvel at the perceived vitality of archaic events in supporting the Allied case for meddling in Greek affairs. Their case centered on the treaties of 1832 and 1863 that had established Britain, France and Russia as “Protecting Powers,” sworn to protect the nascent kingdom from any tyrannical tendencies of its monarch (pp. 219-22 and elsewhere). That such outdated agreements still held sway in 1915 – 83 years on – exemplifies once again the colonial presumptions underlying the First World War.
The Unpopularity of the Macedonian Front in Britain
Contemporary unease with interventionism in the Macedonian theater at the highest ranks of the British government is recounted throughout. By stating the other demands present on the British forces in December 1915, when the Gallipoli campaign had reached its nadir, when Sinai and Kut were under pressure, not to mention the whole escalating war in Western Europe, we understand why the prospect of getting bogged down on a Balkan front unlikely to lead a favorable result was so unappealing to the British.
Indeed, from the moment when they agreed to the French plan for the defense of Thessaloniki, it became clear that Britain sought to maintain nothing more than a defensive posture, to avoid grand offensives far into Macedonia, and to get out as quickly as possible.
This attitude contrasted with the flamboyant spirit of the French, and especially their vivacious General Sarrail, who was in command of the general Allied forces in Macedonia and who would lobby for more vigorous actions.
These diametrically opposed viewpoints would become a source of tension and confusion, as the book reveals, but never pushed relations to breaking point. The author argues at different points the relative merits and drawbacks both approaches had at different times, but in the end comes down in favor of British caution, which allowed the Allies to succeed in their main objective of holding the Bulgarian forces tight to their southern front while guaranteeing the safety of the crucial seaport of Thessaloniki, and with it the fledgling Venizelos government.
In essence, Falls’ argument is that the largely defensive operations of the Allies in Macedonia helped buy time and drain enemy resources, until such a time when external events such as the entry of Romania and, more importantly, the USA, into the war could make the abdication of King Constantine possible without a civil war. Thus the Greeks, whose Royalist supporters had strong Germanic sympathies, were finally officially brought on board in a peaceful manner and a real disaster averted for the Allies:
“…British hesitations were therefore in some sort justified, because they had delayed action until the best moment for action was come. That the British government had not followed this line of reasoning is true; nevertheless their scruples had had the same effect. Instinct, we say, luck, say our critics, has often served this country well in like cases” (p. 361).
Military and Logistical Detail
Despite being unpopular to the British, they had accepted the responsibility of supporting the French in Macedonia and doggedly stood by their duties. In Military Operations Macedonia, the reader gets extraordinarily detailed descriptions of every skirmish and battle that took place in this theater through June of 1917. The book excels in blow-by-blow descriptions that explain the exact munitions used, commanders, contingents and battalions involved, as well as precise casualty counts, and also provides operational timetables, often right down to the minute.
Such detailed descriptions allow the author to indulge in a fair amount of tactical analysis that explains why successes and failures alike occurred and how situations could have turned out differently than they did.
A key influencing factor in this regard turns out to be logistical issues. Falls does an admirable job of describing how transportation and military outfitting were affected by shipping problems (for example, the high success rate of German submarines in the Aegean), the relative availability of mules, horses, train cars, etc., and the state of roads, wells and victuals relative to weather conditions. These limiting factors are described on almost every page that deals with military engagements, as well as in the detailed Chapter 12 (“The Working of the Machine).”
Availability of food also turns out to have been a highly strategic factor, as in the case of the decision to requisition the Thessaly grain harvest of 1917, key to the fortunes of both the Royalist and Venizelist Greek factions, and therefore to the Allied powers themselves (p. 349).
Life in Macedonia: Diseases, Spies, Creature Comforts
The same chapter discusses a subject that recurs repeatedly and had a huge impact on the whole campaign: disease. Everything is mentioned, from sunstroke to venereal disease to the preponderance of mosquito-borne malaria that decimated the ranks on both sides. Malaria in fact became almost another enemy position that affected strategy, for example in May 1917, when British General Milne ordered his troops to fall back to a “summer line” away from the fetid River Struma, thereby giving up territory but also saving thousands of lives (p. 338).
The previous summer had seen hospitalization rates of over 100 men per day – and this from a single battalion. On average, 1 percent of those infected would die that summer (though this rate was subsequently lowered in 1917 and 1918 to 0.3 percent through preventative tactics). Nevertheless, says the author, despite “…every known method of combating the breeding of mosquitoes being adopted,” still “…the work was in great part wasted” (p. 145):
“…Southern Macedonia is probably the most malarial country in Europe, and it is one in which, owing to the vast area of marsh and lake and the countless streams feeding the great rivers, such as the Vardar and Struma, a campaign against the mosquito is almost fruitless.”
Weather also forced illness and postponements, such as in Spring 1917 when the French campaign was slowed by snow (p. 340).
Yet it wasn’t all bad for the troops who were in the field and, in some cases, the towns. Thessaloniki is described as being a bustling and “tawdry” city (p. 105), Europe’s most overcrowded, “swarming with spies” (p. 99) and outfitted with two breweries for the provision of beer for the Allied forces. And then there were the city’s public houses, of which the author is rather dismissive:
“…there were several indifferent but lively music-halls, filled each night with an audience that kept up such a din as to make its title a mockery; and, for the officers especially, cafés and restaurants, though the prices were exorbitant.
…In its tawdry fashion Salonika undoubtedly was gay, but the tawdriness was more notable than the gaiety; the very women of pleasure were the last reserves of the Army of Aphrodite” (p. 105).
Maybe he just didn’t know where to look. In any case, despite the later mention of venereal disease (though, humorously, not seen on the scale of for example the French theater), the author is quick here to add that “…the legend of the Salonika Army as an army sitting in cafés is, however, ludicrously false… hard work and exposure to heat, dust, mosquitoes and flies, or to bitter cold and searching winds, according to the season; a sick-rate higher than in any other major theatre of the war; very little leave home; very poor prospects until the end of three long years of a decisive victory-these were the conditions of the Macedonian campaign, for which the attractions of an occasional visit to Salonika were no great recompense” (p. 105).
However, even despite these hardships, life in the field could be enjoyable. The author describes how British and French troops guarding Thessaly from a feared Royalist incursion “…procured sporting guns and enjoyed woodcock shooting such as Ireland at its best cannot match” (p. 229). How sporting!
Limitations: Maps and Names
All in all, there is very little criticism to be made of Military Operations Macedonia. The only problems that arise with following the well-documented action described have largely to do with the place-names employed and maps available. There is a great deal of confusion here because the maps in the book use a smattering of Turkish, Greek and Slavic toponyms, and most military strategic points are riotously described in French or English (“Grande Couronne,” “Kidney Hill,” etc.), or simply as coordinates (P1, P2, etc).
This bewildering heterogeneity of nomenclature makes it very difficult to compare precisely, should one decide to do so,where events took place. Since many of the place-names have changed since the population exchanges of 1922, and the English and French ones were of course never recognized by anyone except the soldiers temporarily stationed there, it is necessary to laboriously compare to modern maps, which can be hard to find in the detail required.
When it was initially published, Military Operations Macedonia included an extra volume of full-color maps. Cost considerations led to these not being included in the 1997 reprinting (though apparently they are still available on demand to anyone who writes the Imperial War Museum). The one fold-out map included is in black-and-white and in any case makes for very laborious examination: the letters are so small that it can’t be read without a magnifying glass, and in any case the blurring of thick black lines indicating mountains and prevalence of long-extinct Turkish place-names makes this map of very limited immediate value to the reader.
Aside from its main strong points, Military Operations Macedonia also includes the inevitable unusual side details that pop up now and again and which pique the reader’s curiosity. Thus we hear of mules being imported from South America, of Senegalese and Indians conscripted into the imperial armies, and of the United States donating train cars to the beleaguered Serbs. We imagine the sight of Scottish bagpipers leading the charge in Macedonia, of French troops commandeering the Acropolis, of the deployment of soldiers on horseback simultaneously with the primitive aerial bombardments from “machines,” as the author calls airplanes.
Political changes also play a part. We learn of the “disintegrating and contagious influence of Bolshevism” in the Russian contingent under French command in May 1917, even as their home country was being swept by revolution, as well as the secret workings of the Black Hand in the Serbian ranks (p. 343), and come across what is said to be the first mention of Yugoslavia in military annals (p. 121).
All in all, the words and deeds described in the narrative largely bolster the existing stereotypes of European nations: we are given an impression of the grandiose French, with sweeping visions of conquest; the cynical, cautious Brits; the untrustworthy Italians, brave Bulgarians, efficient Germans and fractious Greeks. In exaggerated form, this gives some opportunity for comedy but also points to real differences that affected relations in complex ways.
Military Operations Macedonia was written as the first part of a two-volume series that describes the full British campaign in that theater during World War I. It leaves off with the abdication of Greek King Constantine in June 1917, in the process doing an admirable job of synthesizing, with much detail and analysis, the engagements and political machinations on the Macedonian front, within the larger context of the war.
Written in 1932 from original sources and interviews, the work both benefits from hindsight while also taking its testimony directly from those involved in the fighting. As such, it is a unique work of history, and also at times an entertaining read – an indispensable addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in the history of the Balkans during the Great War.
Reviewed by Christopher Deliso
“”if ever it should come about that a British Government finds itself hesitating between two theatres of war, the balance ought to be heavily weighted against that which, for climatic, physical, or medical reasons, is the less suited to the qualities and aptitudes of its troops” (p. 305).
So wrote Capt. Cyril Falls in 1935, in concluding his second volume of Military Operations Macedonia. Needless to say, considering that the campaign took two volumes to finish up, Macedonia fell into the category of the “less suited.” In the annals of flawed Balkan interventions, this one would rank high; though the author bravely defends Britain’s valiant efforts to safeguard northern Greece from the Bulgarian threat, it’s clear that he shares the latent pessimism of the British authorities at the time of the war, who were constantly conflicted between desires to slog it out in Macedonia, or reassemble their forces in more promising theaters of war.
The book, the final part of the British government’s official history of the First World War in Macedonia, picks up where the first volume left off- the spring of 1917, when victory, emerging slowly and tentatively at first, started to appear within sight for the Allies.
However, when the book begins, it’s with a vexing problem that haunted the first volume- malaria season in southern Macedonia. Once again, the reader is made to appreciate the significance of this peripheral but disastrous side of warfare in the Balkans. The Allies, and to a lesser extent their Bulgarian and German enemies, lost thousands of casualties in the war of attrition against the mosquito.
The first military movement described in the book – a tactical withdrawal from the banks of the River Struma – was in fact made to get away from malaria, in June of 1917; the author curses the “fever-haunted floor of the valley” that had taken so many lives in the previous two years (p. 4).
However, the British had started to learn by this point, and taken preventative measures that ultimately meant a reduction of losses to the disease. Hastily handed out mosquito nets are deemed “as important as the rifle” in the Macedonian campaign (p. 7).
Methods of Approach
There are several different ways in which this book can be approached. For those who want to follow the action as it unfolds, reading straight through is the obvious way to go. For military historians or those looking for specific details about specific engagements, the book excels in providing precise, blow-by-blow descriptions of the battles, the geographical and climactic conditions that affected them, as well as the larger political and strategic dimensions at work. Military Operations Macedonia also regularly reflects the British accounts with Bulgarian, German and other sources, noting where there is consensus between battle descriptions and figures and what the likely truth of the matter was in cases of discrepancy.
Some readers may be better served, however, by reading the book’s Conclusion (p. 285) first. This chapter puts the events of the Macedonian campaign discussed throughout both contexts into the big picture, comparing the decisions made there to other strategic decisions made in all the theaters of war and by all the actors involved. Although this in a way “spoils the ending,” everyone knows how the Great War ended up and having in mind the bigger picture and the ultimate lessons of that campaign for the British is invaluable for making a coherent picture of sometimes confusing, microcosmic descriptions of a ambivalent series of attacks and counter-attacks fought in obscure terrain, in the greater part of which no headway was made by either side.
As was the case in the first volume, numerous odd little details pop up here and there that add color and interest to the retelling. A couple of these come up with the differing fortunes of Allied troops; while the British are enjoying even a spot of foxhunting in their area of operation, the Russians, hearing of revolutionary goings-on back home, are mutinying in Ohrid in October, 1917 (p. 10).
The volatility of the western Macedonian frontier, on which were located an uneasy alliance of French, Greek, Serb, Italian, Russian and Albanian troops, was illustrated by other unique details such as the decision of the short-lived “Koritsa Republic” to issue postage stamps, which the author claims are “much sought after” by collectors at the time of writing (1935).
Finally, there are a few moments when the intractable “Macedonian question” is mentioned, if unwittingly, by the author. By and large it is clear that he considers the Serbian armies to be liberating “their” lands when advancing over the mountains to Bitola and up the Vardar. The occasional mention of the term “Macedonians” is also slightly ambivalent. There is the “picturesque little body of Macedonians” recruited by the British in the Dojran area, “whose early training as banditti proved useful and who carried out their duties fairly satisfactorily under two British officers” (p. 27). And then there is the description of the “Macedonian troops” under Bulgarian command, who “had for some time had an indifferent reputation, as the numerous soldiers of Serbian nationality among them had no desire to fight for Bulgaria” (p. 161).
The Salonika Fire
Although it is brief, the vivid description of the great Salonika fire of August 18, 1917 (pp. 21-23) succeeds in capturing something of this tragedy. The author recounts how the fire began within the “flimsy old houses” of the Turkish quarter (today’s Ano Poli, Upper Town) and swooped down on the rest of the city with the malicious help of a strong “Vardar Wind.”
Most interesting, perhaps, was the popular perception at the moment that while “the Turkish quarter might be doomed, [it] was not thought probable that the flame would cross the Rue Egnatia, the main east-to-west street, which divided the old town from the new. Actually, when they reached it, they leapt across it with scarcely a check” (p. 21).
Even keeping in mind the classic Greek disinterest in acting until the final moment of need arrives, it is strange to note how indifferent they were to the descending inferno. The fire had started after three o’clock in the afternoon, and by dinner time people “were snatching up what belongings they could carry and running for safety, joining a great throng, wailing and terror-stricken, which had poured down from the upper town.” The author’s description of the fire is evocative:
“The sight was a ghastly but magnificent one; the area of the fire was now one red glow, topped by enormous pillars of smoke, and the sound of the burning had become a continuous crackling roar, above which could be distinguished ever and anon the crash of roofs falling in.
Finally, the water-front caught fire, despite the efforts of the Navy, which played hoses on the buildings from lighters… the tragic splendour of the scene was heightened when some light inflammable matter was blown out over the sea and fell upon a lighter filled with petrol. The burning oil then spread over the surface of the sea, which seemed itself to be afire, and the flames illumined the whole harbour and the dense crowds massed upon the water-front.”
The disaster resulted in the destruction of “between one third and one half of the city,” the author states, noting that the finest old homes and some historical buildings, such as the 5th century church of St. Demetrius, were also sacrificed to the flames. The tragedy disproportionately affected certain ethnic groups; aside from the aforementioned Turks, the author claims that “eighty-thousand people, two-thirds of them Jews, were rendered homeless.” He adds the interesting fact that “the fire was said to be the most costly in the history of insurance, the damage being estimated at [pounds] 8,000,000” (p. 22).
The Impact of Outside Events
A noteworthy aspect of both volumes of Military Operations Macedonia is the author’s continual contextualization of the campaign in the big picture, that is, against the external military and political events that one could reasonably argue affected the outcome of operations in Macedonia.
One of these key trends was the unstable situation of Romania throughout the war. As the northern neighbor of Bulgaria, with Black Sea ports and an arch-enemy on its western flank (Hungary), Romania held out the prospect of pulling Bulgarian forces away from Macedonia while helping the allies to bottle up Istanbul and hopefully take it over. If both Bulgaria and Turkey could be squeezed out of the war, the Allies would have a much easier and more concentrated time of taking on the Axis on the more central fronts.
However, Russia’s descent into near civil war in the fall of 1917, and Romania’s forced truce with the Germans in December 1917 prevented this from happening. Further, the Austrian defeat of the Italians at the Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo on October 24, 1917, forced the Allies to convene an emergency meeting with the immediate goal of preventing the loss of Venice. As a British general wrote in his diary, “the loss of Venice means the loss of the Adriatic, and a serious threat, therefore, to Salonika and Egypt, but I am afraid that is coming” (p. 40).
At the same time, the British offensive in Palestine was a “bright spot,” the author attests, but one with a more deleterious effect on the prosecution of the war in Macedonia than the Italian defeat in the Julian Alps had been.
The victory “had the effect of hardening the views of the British political and military authorities against the Salonika venture – Palestine seemed to the British Government to promise yet richer rewards to endeavour. They now hoped to be able to drive Turkey out of the war and perhaps by this means cause the defection of Bulgaria, which they had given up hoping to do by means of operations in Macedonia” (p. 41).
Another persistent theme in the narrative is directly related to this ambivalence in strategic thinking. In Macedonia there was low-level but persistent tension between the French, who with typical bombast were calling for a dashing offensive against the Bulgars and Germans, and the British, who with typical caution were wishing they could just pull out and relocate their troops to more promising theaters. In his generally sympathetic portrayal of the removal of energetic French General Sarrail (p. 47), the author depicts him as a good general who fell victim of a confused policy, and notes much later that the eventual winning battle strategy had a lot in common with the one Sarrail had advocated.
A potential bright spot to counter this gloom had been the return of Eleftherios Venizelos to power in June, 1917, which would bring those Greeks loyal to him – especially important, the crack mountain troops from his stronghold of western Crete – into the services of the Allies in Macedonia. England, France and the US donated some $10 million to rebuild the Greek army, which would play an important part in the eventual victory. The author describes the Greek soldiers thus:
“brave and dashing but volatile, likely to be better in attack than in defence and to be subject to fits of depression if kept too long in reserve or on a very quiet front. Few troops improved more rapidly under active service conditions. The countrymen, especially mountaineers and islanders, were superior to the townsmen, but in general the troops proved themselves second only to the Serbians as marchers” (p. 68).
A New Start
The “new start” that began with the arrival of French Gen. Guillaumat in December 1917 was notable for its pessimism. The “new orders” for the allied forces stated that the key goal was not offensive action, but the protection of “Old Greece”- that is, the Greek lands south of those conquered in the Balkan Wars (p. 49). The contemporaneous events outside were having a sobering effect even despite the entrance of the Greeks and the inspirational arrival of 10,000 Bosnian Serb fighters (and 80 from Australia) who had been press-ganged into Austrian service and then captured by the Russians in the early stages of the war.
“The Serbians were inspired by the sight of these men of their race who had dared and suffered so much in its cause, had journeyed such vast distances to fight by their sides, and were obviously fine troops” (p. 69). On the next page we hear of Croat and Slovenian prisoners held in Italy, whose sympathies lay with the Austrians.
Nevertheless, the prosecution of the war in Macedonia was slow and marked only by minor skirmishes and counter-parries that, so far as their casualty counts went, were exceedingly wasteful. The Supreme Allied War Council in Versailles seemed concerned by March that the abandonment of Thessaloniki was not being considered seriously enough. And the German offensive on the Western Front, beginning on March 21, pulled French and British troops from Macedonia, destined to never return (p. 76).
However, in May the tide began to turn. The French and Italians made inroads in western Macedonia and Albania, and on the 30th a well-prepared French-Greek force scaled the heavily fortified rock face of Skra (or Ljumnica, southwest of Gevgelija), taking it but suffering 2,700 casualties in the process. The victory was mostly symbolic; nevertheless, says the author,” few actions so small have made so much stir [the victory] “not only filled the Venizelist troops with great pride, not only inspired the Royal Greek Army – and that at a moment when the troops of the doubtful Morea were being mobilized – but greatly enhanced the prestige of M. Venizelos” (p. 91).
Early the next month, however, the relatively recently arrived Gen. Guillaumat was recalled to France, then under strong pressure from the German offensive (p. 101). In his place was sent Gen. Franchet D’Esperey, who took over command on the 18th of June and who would take the credit for the final Allied victory several months later.
Guillaumat, however, exerted a strong influence from France where the war council was dictating operations and lobbied the allied leaders for more vigorous action in Macedonia, which the Serbs and some of the Greek also supported. After the tide began to turn in France in July, the powers decided to give the all-clear for offensive action on September 10, 1918, through the vigorous efforts of the French general to bring the British, French and Italian governments around (p. 112).
Some Possible Drawbacks
The rest of the book narrates the breathtaking speed of the Allied breakthrough that won the war in Macedonia- paradoxically, taking over 150 pages to do so. This owes to the very detailed description of each military engagement and periodic reflection on events happening elsewhere. For readers impatient with such minutiae, the retelling might seem a bit of a slog, and the back-and-forth nature of the narrative, constantly informed by references to past and future events, can make it a jarring read. But the author’s job of making sense of such a mass of complex and often contradictory information was a difficult one, and it can be said that he did a better than adequate job in contextualizing the material. And while general-interest readers might choose to skim them, for war historians the detailed descriptions of close-quarters fighting right down to the hour of engagement will prove indispensable.
For today’s reader, the topographical descriptions and map references are likely to be a bit baffling. Turkish and Macedonian village names long plastered over by Greek ones sometimes make it hard to locate the action; this problem is more serious with the topographical names of operational areas, where the author shows a fondness for the English-language and French-language names given to the hills and valleys of southern Macedonia, which obviously didn’t stick.
Further, while there are numerous maps (including one large fold-out map tucked into the back of the book) the text is so small and the original colors, not reproduced, that it sometimes requires a microscope to make out the names. However, some of the historical pictures included are quite interesting, and the appendices- with full lists of the order of divisions on both sides of the battlefield, with all key officers named – are very useful for historians.
The Bigger Picture
Because of its conclusive and definitive nature, the second volume of Military Operations Macedonia naturally does a better job than the first of contextualizing the significance of the Macedonian campaign in terms of the war as a whole. The author also frames it in relation to the events that would happen immediately afterwards, such as the military occupation of Istanbul by the Great Powers and the disastrous Greco-Turkish war. In addition, non-military events that had an impact, including the Salonika Fire and the worldwide flu epidemic of 1918 are also stressed.
The main question throughout the operation, from the British point of view, was the relative worth of the campaign compared to other theatres of operation which seemed more promising, especially the Middle East (p. 291). Another key to understanding the British mindset of caution and strategic deployment is the philosophy of maritime advantage, which had been demonstrated during Britain’s long centuries as a seafaring power: “never, if you have an alternative, go where the Navy cannot hold out a hand to you” said a British Lieutenant-General at the time (p. 260).
Macedonia, alas, was not such a place. British pessimism would be sustained throughout the course of the campaign also because there was for a long time a stalemate situation in their sector of operation, near the heavily fortified Lake Dojran area. The French and Serbs, on the other hand, took part in the most exciting breakthroughs from Bitola and through the Vardar valley (there is a very moving description on p. 152 of the Serbian and French troops singing the Marseillaise as they took the initiative in September 1918), and the author frequently states that the endurance and toughness of the Serbian troops was the key factor in the Allies’ rapid advance.
Beyond the questions of strategy to be pondered by the armchair generals of yesterday and today, perhaps the most compelling aspect of Military Operations Macedonia is the attitude of the author – and thus, his society – towards war in general. For us, it amounts to unwitting nonchalance when enormous casualties are brushed off as inevitable, if to be lamented. All things considered, it’s not surprising that nothing is said of the suffering and exploitation of the faceless civilian population.
The rapid technological advances that made WWI the first modern war are also depicted with the same apparent indifference. The modern reader is struck by the almost mundane description of modern gas attacks – and at the same time, the good old bayonet – and by the curious combination of old and new technologies that saw both aircraft and donkeys play an indispensable role in the prosecution of the war. In fact, throughout the book, occasional mention is made of air power as being a decisive factor. The R.A.F. is credited by May 1918 with giving Britain “mastery of the air” (p. 89). A grisly depiction of this “mastery” that has been exploited more and more viciously with all subsequent wars is provided several chapters later:
“The aircraft flew over the [Bulgarian transport] columns in relays, dropping bombs upon them and then returning to their aerodromes for another load. In some cases they swooped down to within fifty feet of the ground, the rake troops and transport with machine gun fire. The target was an extraordinary one. There is in existence a set of aeroplane photographs which show a solid stream of transport, for the most part double-banked, between Valandova and the Rabrovo cross-roads and also south and east of the latter point” (pp. 294-295).
The First World War is often considered one of the most, if not the most pointless wars in modern history. Although most studies of it consider the suffering and destruction wrought by the more famous battles that took place in Western Europe, Military Operations Macedonia shows that the same was true for the less discussed Balkan theaters of war.
The work is, finally, an educational resource for those who have always wondered why the war lasted as long as it did. It would be going too far to say that the Balkan theater was a pivotal one for anyone except the local inhabitants; but the perceived need to hold the line in Macedonia by both sides did, however, necessitate the costly and difficult diversion of hundreds of thousands of troops and accompanying staff to a relative hinterland- even though they arguably could have been better used elsewhere. Exactly why the dueling Great Powers believed Macedonia was worth the trouble is a vexing question that the study only partially answers.
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