Tag Archives: Balkans

Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918 by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody

During my research into Portsmouth’s Great War casualties, I have come across a number who are buried in Greece. I must confess that although I knew that the British Army had fought in ‘Salonika‘ during the First World War, I had very little awareness of what had actually happened in that campaign. As the Introduction explains, when this book was first published in 2004 it was the first book on Salonika to reach a British market in 39 years! Little wonder that the campaign has been ignored by history, overshadowed by both the Western Front on the one hand, and Gallipoli on the other.

The Balkans has always been a notoriously sensitive region throughout European history, with the melting pot of Yugoslavia, and numerous ethnic and religious tensions in the area. Into this dangerous context, the British Army landed in 1915. Ostensibly their presence was protect Greece against Bulgarian agression, yet many in the Greek establishment were decidedly anti-British and pro-German. The real intention was to divert Bulgarian resources away from a possible attack on Franco-Serbian forces elsewhere in the Balkans. The campaign took place in the Greek province of Macedonia (not to be confused with the modern state of Macedonia, which is nearby but part of the former Yugoslavia), and British forces depended on the port of Salonika for their lines of communications. Thus it was into a very delicate and awkward theatre that British soldiers entered in 1915.

Viewed from the foresight of British military overconfidence, and underestimation of the enemy, the campaign was a disappointment military. British forces failed to make much headway, even when the Bulgarians were on the point of collapse. In the end, the Armistice in September 1918 came completely out of the blue. Personally, I would argue that to have fought a tricky campaign with a lack of resources, lack of priority, and against a formidable enemy, climate and disease, not to mention a neutral host country, was no mean feat at all.

Many British troops at Salonika had embarked from Gallipoli, and there were many similarities between the two campaigns. Both were borne out of a desire to avoid mass casualties by fighting on the western front, and to attempt to ‘knock away the props’ by defeating Germany‘s allies. Little did the ‘easterners’ understand that Germany was propping up her allies. Similar arguments would be heard twenty five years later when Churchill exhoted the allies to exploit Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’, irritating american suspicions in the process. But the similarities do not end there. Troops fighting in the Eastern Mediteranean fought against the enemies of the heat, disease, and an foe that turned out to be much more formidable than had been expected.

This is a very useful book indeed. It sheds new light on a vastly under-studied campaign, and it certainly expanded my Great War horizons. It is incredibly well researched, and makes plentiful use of primary sources – both official documents and eyewitness accounts. It is not just a political narrative, but gives ample attention to the rank and file soldier, and wider contexts.

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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