Salonika: a strange sideshow to the first World War

Clive Aslet, author of The Birdcage, tells the story of a remote theatre of war, home to spies, shows, bints, nurses, gardeners and the occasional bloody battle

“So right away, Salonika,” runs the refrain of a popular Irish song during the first World War. It’s the bitter lament of a wife who has been struggling at home while her husband is away, in a place – Salonika – that probably she barely knew to exist before the conflict.

Now called Thessaloniki, the city itself had, until a few years before, been one of the jewels of the Ottoman Empire – a mysterious compound of the exotic and the cosmopolitan, the place to which St Paul had addressed his Letter to the Thessalonians, in which Roman ruins stood beside ancient basilicas, recently converted back to churches from being mosques. From the port, serving the Balkans, it was possible to see Mount Olympus, home of the ancient gods, across the bay. But outside the city, the countryside hadn’t changed much from the days when Lord Byron was there, its tracks – there were no proper roads – still haunted by brigands.

This was the land to which the 10th (Irish) Division came towards the end of 1915. Like the rest of the Anglo-French army of which they were part, they were stuck there without leave for two years – their loved ones, like the singer in the song already mentioned, wondering if they were dead.

Before 1914, the Balkans had already suffered several years of intense fighting. It was during them, in 1912, that Salonika was captured by the Greek army – to the mortification of the Bulgarian army, which arrived the next day. (The Bulgarians, seeking to negotiate with the Ottoman commander Hassan Tahsin Pasha, were told ruefully: “I have only one Thessaloniki, which I have surrendered.”)


For the 10th (Irish) Division, composed of volunteers who had signed up in the early months of the first World War, as for the rest of the 150,000-strong Franco-British force, the object was to join up with the Serbian army, who were fighting their historic enemy, Bulgaria. They were just too late. The Serbs had been defeated. The Connaught Rangers, the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Hampshire Regiment fought the Battle of Kosturino to cover their epic and painful retreat across the Albanian mountains. Thereafter, the French and British threw a ring of barbed wire fortifications around Salonika (it became known as The Birdcage) and occupied the plains; while the Bulgarians dug themselves into the mountains. That was how things remained until the last months of the war. Stalemate.

On this stagnant front, the troops remained, in the words of FAW Nash, who served with the RAMC and the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, becoming a school teacher and writer of fairy stories after the Armistice, “bedded fast in slab and thick monotony like flies in treacle”. After a mere two years of peace, villages were still deserted, houses wrecked. Posted upcountry in what resembled a desert, officers shared a single ambition: to get to Salonika. With a nurse.

Salonika was small but colourful. The old town was made up of wooden houses that cascaded down the hill from the fort, with latticed windows on the first floor to conceal the ladies of the house. Open drains ran down the centre of the street. About 1900, the Ottoman governor had succeeded in modernising the lower city, creating brightly lit boulevards on the model of Paris. Not only had the population barely become Greek, but the majority were of somewhat ambiguous nationality at the best of times. For more than half were Jews. They were descended from families who had been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 15th century – and they still spoke Ladino, a kind of Spanish Yiddish. To add to the complication, Greece was, despite the presence of the Anglo-French armies, officially neutral. The Allies had been invited to Salonika by the prime minister, Eliftherios Venizelos, but the king was the brother-in-law of the Kaiser. Salonika’s neutral status meant that the enemies of the French and British could, to begin with, maintain consulates. Spying was rife.

But there were more than spies in Salonika. It had cafes, restaurants, the clubs that the British established wherever they went in the world, music halls where rowdy young subalterns could misbehave – and other entertainments around the railway station where the number of brothels had multiplied since the arrival of so many soldiers. Nurses were the only respectable females of their own type that the officers were likely to find on the Salonika Front. They either lived in tented cities on the outskirts of Salonika itself or in tents in the wild, where they had to improvise everything for themselves. They were a venturesome breed, and very much in demand, if only as a reminder of home.

Home. The Salonika troops longed for it. Their lot was not as unremittingly terrible as that on the Western Front: skirmishes took place in the foothills but not trench warfare. But they did not get leave. They were out there for the duration, galled that the public in Britain thought they were having an easy time of it. That was hardly the case. Only officers were allowed inside the Birdcage (as they called Salonika from the barbed wire fortifications surrounding it). The men had to stay in their camps. Since there was little fighting to do, the authorities had to put their minds to entertainment. What would keep them from getting restless?

The answer was shows. All kinds were put on. They used whatever human talent was to hand. Displays on the parallel bars were prominent in the army gymnasts’ performance, for example. Others were of a more amateur kind – but still taken seriously. One brigade built its own theatre, where a troupe of 250 soldiers was relieved normal duties to mount entertainments. Bints – the often quite ordinary soldiers whose task it was to impersonate women – were sometimes accorded super star status. This was not principally because of what, in old public schools, would have been called “vice”: homosexuality was largely, though not wholly repressed. The bints’ turns on stage allowed many in the audience to forget the madness of being stuck for years in an uncomfortable foreign clime, and remember the mothers, wives, girlfriends and sisters from whom they were parted.

I read many diaries, letters and memoirs written by the men and women on this front for my novel, The Birdcage. They often revealed a wonderfully British determination to make the best of things. Some studied the local wildlife, keeping hoopoes as pets. There were plenty of horses to be put through their paces at divisional horse shows. Hunts were formed. Tortoises were raced. One soldier sent home for his cello. Farms and gardens were established, partly to grow food (necessary, since all supplies had to come in by ship and were vulnerable to Austrian U-Boats) but also for the love of the plants that the quartermasters knew from their gardens in the Home Counties. Which added credence to the derogatory name by which the armies were known – the Gardeners of Salnoika.

The hospitals were entirely staffed by women, some of them entirely so: the stalwart ladies who organised them, initially without the help or recognition of the military command, did so to free the maximum number of men for fighting duties. Many of them were also suffragettes, who wanted to show that the supposedly frailer sex could do more than stay at home knitting socks. Although the hospitals also managed to put on shows, of a decorous kind, the nurses were often busier, until 1918, than the soldiers. For while the British, on the right of the Front, had little to do after Kosturino, the French, on the left, saw more action; and the Serbs were forever fighting, ferociously in the mountains. Hospital beds that weren’t filled with wounded soldiers were occupied by malaria cases (soldiers objected to wearing mosquito veils in the heat of the Greek summer). Malaria often struck the nurses themselves.

The military stand-off only ended in September 1918 with the Battle of Doiran, in which the British, supported by the Greeks and a French Zouave regiment, set themselves the all but impossible task of driving the Bulgarians out of their mountain positions on Pip Ridge. This was a different kind of “show” from the ones put on for amusement. It required the Allied force to make a frontal assault on all but impregnable positions with inadequate artillery support. The first two battalions to throw themselves at the heights were annihilated. It was then the turn of the Welsh Brigade, according to an account published 20 years later:

“No feat of arms can ever surpass the glorious bravery of those Welshmen. There was lingering gas in the Jumeaux Ravine (probably ours!) and some of the men had to fight in respirators. Imagine, if you can, what it means to fight up a hillside under a deadly fire, wearing a hot mask over your face, dimly staring through a pair of clouded goggles, and sucking the end of a rubber nozzle in your mouth. At the same time heat is pouring down on you from a brazen sky. In this plight you are called on to endure the blast of machine-gun fire, the pointed steel or bursting shell of the enemy. Nor are you called on to endure alone ; you must vigorously fire back, and vigorously assail with your own bayonet. It is as much like hell as anything you can think of.”

The British and Greek attacks were utterly repulsed, leaving over seven thousand dead. However, the Franco-Serbian army was more successful to the east, and when it seemed that the Bulgarian army would be divided, the defenders were forced to fall back from Pip Ridge. In the ensuing rout, the British were dismayed to discover the atrocities perpetrated on the Bulgarian sick and wounded as the Serbians retook their homeland – and they marvelled and the neat little gardens that the Germans had laid out in the part of Serbia which they had occupied, as well as Swiss-style chalets on the sides of ravines.

The 10th (Irish) Division had been spared this phase of the campaign. They left Salonika in August 1917 – itself a time of high drama, since, in the searing heat of summer, with a wind from the scorching plains blowing down the avenues that the prewar Ottoman governor had aligned on Mount Olympus, a fire broke out. The origin was probably innocent – a lamp knocked onto the straw in a basement where chickens were kept, perhaps – but it did far more damage than the enemy was able to inflict. Two-thirds of the city burnt down. Much of the local population were reduced to living in tents – conditions that seem to have prefigured those in which the thousands of refugees from Syria and elsewhere, massed on a border that has now been closed, are living today. This, however, was not the end for the Jews, nearly all of whom would be eliminated under German occupation during the second World War. Nor was it the end for Jim Stephens. He was a Devon man who had worked in the Labour Corps which, by that stage, comprised a tenth of the British army: it provided the muscle to build the infrastructure of war, including the roads that took the guns to Lake Doiran.

At some point, Jim’s unit got detached from the rest of the regiment, and it was assumed he had been killed. In fact he had managed to survive, but only by eating a diseased camel liver: “all vomited except Stephens,” noted a doctor, WH Daw, who also employed him as a groom, in a letter that survives in Jim’s medical file; “the others remain well.”

It may have been this, or simply his close contact with animals, that transmitted what appears to have been a zoonotic disease – one that jumps the species barrier from animals to humans – whose symptoms were similar to anthrax. Blisters appeared on his hands and spread to his whole body. The case puzzled the specialists in the London Hospital, the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital at Plymouth, the Tavistock Hospital, the St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin, London, and the Charing Cross Hospital. By 1925 he was raving nonsensically, he had gone blind and his skin had been so rotted that it practically ceased to exist, being replaced instead by a “scaly eruption which peels off in flakes.” Daw’s letter concludes: “His mother insists on seeing his body before burial, can this be prevented?”

The Birdcage is published by Sandstone Press on June 16th