Friday, August 24, 2012

Birds in a Birdcage

The story of the Eastern Campaign in Salonika

Salonika before the Great Fire of 1917

The background of my novel The Long Shadow is Salonika, now modern Thessaloniki, in Macedonian Greece. It is a place I know well and love as a vibrant and modern city, yet with something of the Oriental about it still. The city was far smaller then and a real 'macedoine', a term coined for the soup of nations and races that mixed there.  The Balkans were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 200 years and the central sway of Constantinople held this heterogenous collection of nations together in comparative peace. Jews, Muslims, Christians all lived together in a neighbourly harmony and these religions were allowed to be practised for the Turks considered both Jews and Christians to be People of the Book. Plus they taxed the infidels which was a lucrative source of income. Some Jews did convert to Islam but secretly retained Jewish customs and religious practice, forming a strange sect called the Donmeh.  The vast majority of the trade came under the influence of the Jews who had been allowed to settle there by the Turks after they were expelled from Spain. Greeks were in the minoirty at that time and Athens was a little village near the sea.

During the period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century there was much unrest in the Balkans as the central power of the Turks from Constantinople grew weaker. Many countries, including Greece, gained their independence. Salonika fell to the Greeks in November 1912 when Crown Prince Constantine rode into the liberated city amidst the wild cheering of the Greek crowds. The Jewish population was still in the majority but this was to change dramatically with the influx of Greek refugees from Smyrna, the enforced exchange of Turks and Greeks by Kemal Attaturk and during the Second World War when 50,000 Jews were taken away to Auswitzch.

Refugees from Smyrna
 During the period of the Great War the area around the city was marshy, unhealthy and malarial with the River Vardar running through to the sea.  The ancient name for this river was the Axius in Homer's stories. These marshes were later drained by the Americans and became tobacco fields or vineyards.  The city itself suffered a great fire during the war, in 1917.  This destroyed a huge portion of the old city and a modern city rose from the ruins with many of the old and interesting houses, mosques and churches lost forever.

The battles of the Western Front have always claimed greatest attention; Ypres, the Somme, Passchendale and all the other haunting names of the Western Front are well documented and lived over and over again in documentaries. We conjure up pictures of slithering mud, cold trenches, stunted trees and other harrowing scenes of Western battle zones. But who knows much about Macedonia and the freezing Vardar winds, the barren but beautiful mountains, the treacherous ravines and raging summer heat filled with malarial mosquitoes? Curious to know more, I began to explore the subject. The more I read diaries, memoirs, letters of those who loved, fought, suffered together there, the more I felt I wanted to record the bravery and courage of these forgotten and unsung heroes.

Red Cross nurses on stretcher duty
I began by writing to the British Red Cross Society to ask for information and help in research. A reply came from a very helpful lady called Joy Fawcett, sadly now deceased, who lent me several copies of war-time Red Cross Magazines and the Nursing Mirror. These proved an invaluable source of information. I then asked her if she could find anyone still alive who had some memories of their service with the V.A.D. units and a Mrs. Haire Foster kindly filled in a questionnaire for me. Mrs. Fawcett said that the old lady “rather enjoyed remembering the past”. Mrs. Haire Foster has since died but I was amused and surprised too to find that my letter, her reply and her anecdotes are still on file in the Red Cross Archives and the Imperial War Museum also.

The Balkans will perhaps always be a hotbed of unrest, intrigue, nations, languages and crazy patriots - though this arena seems to have shifted to the Middle East now. This area was the tinderbox that set the world alight with war in 1914. Empires were collapsing and struggling to hold on to their power. The death of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the entry of Austro-Hungary into the Balkan conflict, later joined by Bulgaria, ancient enemies of the Greeks. Salonika was the great and flourishing port of Macedonia, holding a strategic place since the times of the Byzantine Empire. It was a prize to be captured and everyone wanted it. The Allies were determined not to let them have it and despite the supposed neutrality of the Greeks (whose King was related to the Kaiser) they sent a force over to “protect” Salonika from the enemy.

Bulgarian post on Hill 1050 north of Monastir

An Expeditionary force of British soldiers was sent out, landing there on October 5th 1915 as part of the Allied Movement against the Austrians and Bulgarians who at that point held the Struma Heights. Barbed wire defences were set up around the city which subsequently led to its being called “The Birdcage”. Over here in Britain, our soldiers were mocked as “The Gardeners of Salonika” because they weren’t englaged in constant warfare as the troops were in France and Belgium.  According to the newspapers the the troops bunkered down around Salonika seemed to do nothing but dig roads and tend their tomatoes.  That this was totally unfair soon became clear.  To get around an army needs roads as the Romans well knew.  And there were only ancient dirtracks in those mountains, used by goats, bullocks and old carts. The British contributed greatly by building very good roads across these impassable mountains. Though there were fewer major battles, due to the impossible terrain, more men died in these fierce battles at one time than in the Western ones.  If there had been any more, there would have been no army left to fight.  These incredibly brave men assailed steep, dangerous mountain tops and ridges and were looked down upon and constantly under shellfire from the enemy comfortably seated up above with easy supplies and ammunition at hand.  As well as all these difficulties, there was the ever present threat of malaria from the steamy summer marshes which wiped out as many men as the battles did or left them forever blighted by its recurrence after the war had ended.   As my character, Dorothy Clarke, says in her war diary…”It is all very well dying for your country but not for a country that refuses to recognise your valour…” 

Tommies in a trenche nr Bairakli Juma. 
3rd batt Royal Fusiliers

The fact is few British soldiers had much clue about the Balkan area, the politicians hadn’t much clue either, even the Balkan people were confused! Salonika was a mere name on a map to a British soldier and no-one dreamed they’d ever see such a place. As for the Balkan people, they had no idea about the British either, no notion of the supposed might and power of this remote lot of islands in the Northern seas. The Brits of course, considered themselves very important, we had an Empire and all that! So when the two met it was an interesting thing to behold.
The village people were poor, backward, lacking in even rudimentary hygiene, downtrodden by years of warfare, brigandage and perpetual upheavals and dangers. They were sullen and suspicious at first. The rather stiff, quiet British exterior also disconcerted the natives who saw this as dull, heavy and stupid. The Salonikans understood better the flamboyant and extravagant gestures and attitudes of the French, Italians and Serbs. However as time went on they were surprised and glad to find that the Tommy was not there to steal from them or rape their women (which could not always be said of the other soldiers) and by the end of our time there, even the Jews admitted they would have preferred Salonika to be ceded to the British who would be just and fair rather than the Greeks who they knew would soon take over the commerce and push the Jews into a ghetto. Sadly this did occur after the war was over due to the huge influx of Greek refugees from Smyrna which tipped the population further into a Greek majority.

The great battles that began the end of the Great War took place in 1917 and names like Doiran, the Grand Couronne and Struma should take their place alongside Passchendale and Ypres. By then the Greeks and Serbs had also joined the Forces and a concerted effort on the part of the Allies helped to route the Bulgarians who simply fled from their long held heights. Like a pack of dominoes, Bulgaria then Austria fell and the whole Central Axis began to crumble. The war began in the Balkans and the beginning of the end occurrred there also thanks to the supreme, daring and brave efforts of men and women who gave up all to go and serve in this harsh and beautiful place where so many now lie buried in a corner of that foreign field.

Praise for The Long Shadow:

“I’m immensely impressed by the novel, especially the Greek scenes. It’s a marvellously accomplished book and many congratulations on an impressive achievement.” Colin Wilson (author of The Outsider, The Occult, Mysteries and many more)

"Reading Loretta Proctor's, 'The Long Shadow' reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's, 'A Farewell to Arms' but told with more passion and admiration for family heritage." Kimberly Eve

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